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District restores religious holidays after outcry

Tampa resident Cynthia Forde tells members of a local school board, “You forgot our creator who created you” (courtesy St. Petersburg Times)

Amid controversy followed nationwide, a Florida school board restored religious holidays to its calendar after removing them due to a request by Muslims to have an observance of their own.

The Hillsborough County School Board in the Tampa Bay area voted 5-2 Tuesday night to adopt a 2006-2007 calendar that gives children a day off on Yom Kippur, Good Friday and the Monday after Easter.

The issue gained national attention when Hillsborough County Commissioner Brian Blair criticized the school board on the Fox News channel program “The O’Reilly Factor” after its vote to eliminate the holidays.

The controversy began last December when Ahmed Bedier, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, requested a school holiday for Eid Al-Fitr, an Islamic holy day marking the end of Ramadan. The board then decided to reconsider the district calendar, voting to delete all religious holidays and replace them with time off for Washington’s birthday in February and two days near the end of the school year.

Bedier called the change away from observing religious holidays “just an excuse to hide bias against the Muslims.”

After the vote Tuesday, Bedier called the restoration a “temporary solution.”

“I’m disappointed but I’m satisfied,” he told the St. Petersburg Times. “We’re back at square one. If others are getting their holidays, it gives us hope we’ll get ours as well someday.”

Several individuals connected to the Council on American-Islamic Relations have been indicted on terrorism-related charges. In addition, CAIR’s chairman of the board, Omar Ahmad, was cited by a California newspaper in 1998 declaring the Quran should be America’s highest authority. He also was reported to have said Islam is not in America to be equal to any other religion but to be dominant.

The vote to eliminate religious holidays sparked a flood of more than 3,500 e-mails to the school board from outraged members of the community and others from across the nation.

Many blamed the Muslims for the loss of the holidays and argued the Christian and Jewish days are part of the nation’s Judeo-Christian heritage.

The school board’s vote Tuesday came after 24 citizens were allowed to voice their opinion, including one man who brought his Bible, the Times reported.

“You forgot our creator who created you,” Cynthia Forde told board members. “You keep saying he don’t exist. You ain’t the boss. We are. We voted you in.

“You’ve got to change your mind.”

Prior to the vote, the board received a memo on the constitutionality of celebrating Christmas during the holiday season from Mathew D. Staver, president and general counsel of Florida-based Liberty Counsel.

The memo is part of the religious liberty group’s “Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign,” launched last month.

A partner in the campaign, Christian Educators Association International, has 8,000 members – consisting primarily of public school teachers and administrators – who are distributing the memo in local communities.

Last week, Baptist leader Jerry Falwell urged tens of thousands of pastors around the country to join the campaign by placing advertisements in their local newspapers.

Staver contended schools can coordinate days off with religious holidays.

“It is not only constitutional, but it is common sense to do so,” he said. “Moreover, during the December holiday season, it is constitutional to celebrate Christmas.”

Staver said it sends a wrong message to either eliminate all holiday celebrations or to eliminate only the religious and Christian components of the holiday season.

“The founding fathers never intended the First Amendment to be used as a weapon against the celebration of Christmas,” he said.

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