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Time off for Muslim holidays: SF school district puts Eid on pause to head off legal threat

San Francisco Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Matt Wayne speaks during a Listening and Learning Town Hall meeting at Abraham Lincoln High School in San Francisco, on Thursday, September 8, 2022. | Chris Victorio for The Standard

To head off a legal threat, San Francisco public school leaders promised to reconsider plans to call off class for Muslim holidays.

The proposal by Superintendent Matt Wayne, which comes up for a vote Tuesday, would trump a resolution the San Francisco Unified School District board passed in August to observe Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha—at least until SFUSD develops criteria to add holidays to the school calendar. 

It would not undo the previous resolution, which is what Paul Scott—the attorney behind a lawsuit against renaming schools—demanded last month.

But in a letter obtained by The Standard, SFUSD lawyer Danielle Houck assured Scott that the district would hold off on observing the holidays—at least for the time being. Recommendations for new criteria would come to the school board in January.

“The new resolution will reflect the board’s focus on inclusivity and input from all stakeholders,” Houck wrote. “We trust this is sufficient to avoid unnecessary litigation at this time.”

The Aug. 9 resolution to add the holidays to the 2023-24 academic calendar culminated months of activism amid mounting pressure from community activists. Lara Kiswani—executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, which mobilized to add the holidays to the academic calendar—voiced frustration that the district is “caving to Islamophobic pressure.”

“We’re extremely disappointed that they’re singling out the Muslim holiday, that they could potentially turn their back on the community,” Kiswani told The Standard. “We’re also hopeful they won’t do so and Eid is implemented in the 2023-24 school year. If that does not happen our community is prepared to organize and defend against these racist attacks.” 

In lobbying the school board for adding the holidays, Muslim students and graduates told the school board about the hardship of choosing between an important celebration with family and missing schoolwork.

Scott, however, argued that the board violated open meeting laws in passing the resolution. Further, he said the resolution violates the  Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which bars government agencies from favoring one religion over the other. 

“We are encouraged by the fact that they have acknowledged their error and appear to be trying to take corrective action,” Scott told The Standard in an email. “We’d far rather get this done by way of a letter than through a lawsuit.” 

San Francisco public schools close to observe Christmas, Lunar New Year, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and Cesar Chavez Day. But public schools in other parts of the country—namely New York City and Detroit, among others—close in observance of Eid as well. 

In an Aug. 26 legal memo responding to Scott’s threat, however, attorney Yaman Salahi argued that SFUSD adopted Eid for secular and not religious reasons, pointing to remarks made by commissioners about the cultural significance of the holiday. 

Salahi also argued that there are legal shifts in the Establishment Clause, with the U.S. Supreme Court recently ruling that a school district violated the law by  disciplining a football coach for praying on the field after games. 

The school board will vote on the resolution at the next regular board meeting which starts at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at 555 Franklin St. 

Matt Smith contributed to this report.