School Board rolls over for American Taliban

November 9, 2005

By making a thoughtful decision to stop favoring Christian holy days in the school calendar and to be respectful of other beliefs and cultures by allowing kids to take days off as their traditions dictate, the Hillsborough County School Board predictably opened itself up to attack by theocratic opponents of inclusive policy.

Board members and administrators said the secular calendar, which resembled the one in place for years in Pinellas County and dozens of school systems around the nation, treated all faiths the same and more clearly separated church and state.

They said children could take days off for religious observances without being penalized.

Board member Doretha Edgecomb stood by the secular calendar Tuesday.

She compared the arguments she heard by people in favor of religious holidays to those made against women fighting for the right to vote and African-Americans battling segregation. She said she felt the secular calendar was more fair.

“In our war of words, in our sometimes self-serving stances and too often our very myopic views, we have lost sight of the most important thing, our children, all of our children and their right to . . . an equitable education,” said Edgecomb, who voted against the religious calendar.

When the board approved the secular calendar, local Muslims said they feared a backlash from people who would view the action as Muslims causing the end of religious holidays for Jews and Christians.

Many of the 3,500 e-mails received by school officials did in fact blame Muslims, labeling them as foreigners not deserving of holidays in the “Judeo-Christian” United States.

Leading the narrow minded fight was trilingual showman turned County Commissioner B. Brian Blair who made an enthusiastic appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s nationally televised shout fest to wrestle for Jesus, ’cause Jesus is really awesome and all, but some people keep acting like this land was made for you and me and not just for the religiously intolerant types who come out of the woodwork every time a non-Christian tries to assert some kind of crazy notion regarding freedom from religion.

The Killer Bee invited himself to last night’s school board meeting and wouldn’t stop talking. See, there’s no reason to hear from any other side when you’re right. Especially when you’re Christian right.

“Everybody’s talking about this like it don’t mean nothing — but it means a lot,” an impassioned Apostle Cynthia Forde shouted. “In God, in God, in God we trust,” she implored. We’ve been spared, she said, but “the next time a hurricane comes,” it may be to Tampa.

Paul Stallard, pastor of the Mango Church of God in Seffner, threatened, “If you don’t change, the battle has just begun.”

Others supported the board’s efforts not to link any religious holidays except Christmas with a day off for all students and teachers.

“Are you going to change your decision because you got hate mail?” said Ali Akbar, a Muslim.

The Rev. Robert White of the Brandon Area Interfaith Coalition asked the board to “look into your hearts — do the right thing” and give the Muslims a holiday.

Tempers flared in exchanges involving county Commissioner Brian Blair, a vocal critic of the decision to eliminate the holidays from the school calendar. Board member Susan Valdes questioned him about whether he would ask the county commission to give its employees the religious holidays off. County, state and federal employees don’t have off religious holidays except Christmas.

Blair continued talking even after board Chairwoman Candy Olson tried twice to cut off his remarks when they went beyond answering questions.

Clearly angry, board member Carolyn Bricklemyer said she “heard things from many people that absolutely hurt my heart” and nearly walked out on some of the speakers. She also took Blair to task for a lack of respect. For those who sent “orchestrated e-mails” to the board, she said she quit reading them.

Blair did finally shut up, or paused to take a breath, and, weary of all the national attention, a majority of School Board members voted to rescind the new policy and return to a calendar that will quiet the screeching protests of those who seem to think that their god is a one size fits all answer to the ills that plague society.

Next month, the board will vote on a proposal to amend the official disciplinary policy to bring it more in line with traditional Christian values.

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