Canadian school board centre of Muslim prayer row

Some parents, advocacy groups think allowing Muslim children to pray in school violates separation of church and state

News Desk April 11, 2017

The Peel District School Board in Ontario, Canada has become the centre of debate and controversy over Muslim prayers being allowed in school, reports BBC.

The school board says the debate is settled, but those who oppose the policy continue to fight.

In March, a public meeting of one of Canada's largest public schools saw chaos during discussions over a policy of religious accommodation in school. The policy has been in place for over 15 years.

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The Peel District School Board says the debate over whether Muslims can hold Friday prayer sessions on school grounds have been settled. They further accused detractors of the policy of creating tensions through 'deliberate misinformation' and said they are "appalled by the anti-Muslim rhetoric and prejudice we have seen on social media, read in emails, and heard first-hand at our board meetings".

Opponents of the policy call the practice "unequal and unfair."

Muslim students in Ontario have observed congregational prayers for almost 20 years now – a right protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

But some parents and groups think allowing Muslim students to pray on school grounds is a step too far.

It is difficult to estimate how many schools across the Canadian province have on-campus prayers, but most of Peel District's 38 schools offer prayer options for Muslim students.

Mike Bayer is one of the parents behind the newly-formed group Religion Out of Public Schools (Roops).

Roops cites concerns with allowing Muslim students to pray in schools, stating it allows for segregation of students and creates an environment where there is unsolicited exposure to religion.

"The separation of church and state is fundamental," says Bayer.

With gender segregation a point of concern, the school board says it is not condoned but sometimes preferred by students. Even when students are separated by sex, they are encouraged to sit in rows along the left and right of the prayer room rather than with girls praying at the back of the room.

Roops created a petition that called for "immediate discontinuation of religious congregation and faith clubs in PDSB public schools". The petitions received over 6,300 signatures. When presented at the March meeting, the meeting grew heated.

PHOTO: Screengrab PHOTO: Screengrab

Christina Dixon, who at the public meeting on a separate issue, recalls "there was a lot of tension in the room" that she did not understand at the time.

"I could tell there were people in the room who were upset and angry and volatile," she says.

Dixon eventually stood up to confront the "violent, bigoted voices", which was captured in a video by Syed Imam. Imam was a former student in the district and attended the meeting to show support for Friday prayers.

Bayer calls the events that evening "unfortunate". "There were some emotional people that started screaming and shouting," he says.

It is not clear how much of the opposition comes from parents and how much from anti-Islam groups like Rise Canada.

Rise Canada adviser Ron Banarjee says there is broad community support to scrap the religious accommodation policy.

In a statement, Ontario Human Rights Commission's Chief Commissioner Renu Mandhane said that "the most appropriate accommodation will be decided on a case-by-case basis."

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Imam, who is now in university, says that out of the 250 Muslim students in his high school, no more than 15 attended Friday prayers, which last about 20 minutes.

He describes it as a chance to "get away from the academic dimension of school and take a little breather, meditate together, and give our thanks and appreciation to God".

The policy also allows students of other faiths to leave class to pray.

Peel District School board spokesperson Brian Woodland says schools regularly handle requests relateted to religion, including groups who request accommodation for issues like sex education and individual students who request a quiet space to pray.

The school board further said religion accommodation is a provincial matter and announced security measures for future board meetings. The regional police are also investigating incidents of clashes at board meetings.

Opponents of the policy, however, have said they are planning to file a human rights complaint and are willing to fight Peel District till the Supreme Court.

This story originally appeared on BBC


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