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Toronto school Board defends Muslim pupils' right to hold Friday prayer at school

Source : Islam Today
Flemington Park | 07 Jul 2011

The Toronto District School Board says it is meeting its obligation to accommodate students' religious beliefs by allowing an imam to lead students in prayer on school property.

The board came under criticism this week when a Hindu group that regularly criticizes Islam raised objections to Muslims observing Friday congregational prayers, which have been held inside a cafeteria at Valley Park Middle School in Flemingdon Park for about three years.

Valley Park Middle School is between 80% to 90% Muslim.

Jim Spyropoulos (pictured), superintendent of inclusive schools for the board, said that parents and teachers at the school came up with an arrangement that would enable the more than 300 observant students at the school to attend prayer without leaving school property and missing class time.

The prayers are entirely run and paid for by the Valley Park community.

"I think it's important to note the prayer isn't conducted under the auspices of the board," he said. "The principal was creative enough to sit down with parents and come up with a solution that worked for everyone and there has not been a single complaint from within the community."

Similar arrangements have been made for Muslim students at other schools throughout the school board's jurisdiction, he said.

But Ron Banerjee, director of Canadian Hindu Advocacy, said his group has received support both from Hindus and non-Hindus who say the TDSB is going too far.

Islamic groups are "imposing their view and trying to change the rules, regulations, norms and values to accommodate themselves, and in the long-term, to spread their ideology," he said.

"...Pretty soon we’re going to have 50 different ethnicities and religions asking for different accommodations."

Ed Morgan, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Toronto, also objects to the idea of prayer assemblies at school. "I think this looks like a school practising religion," he said. "The school may be conveying a message that they endorse religion and that's what the school is not allowed to do."

"This [current case] is not imposition or indoctrination, but it's a fine line," said Prof. Morgan. "Suppose you're one of the kids who is left out? Is there that much difference than the kids who had to get up and leave during mandatory prayer?"

There is a mosque down the street that the students are free to go to, but having the service on campus is more efficient, said Shari SchwartzMaltz, communications manager for the school board.

"The parents were concerned on Fridays that the kids were leaving to go to the mosque, but, frankly, taking their time to get there and get back. There were concerns about safety, even though their parents allowed it, and there was a concern about the loss of instructional time."

To date, the school has received no complaints.

She also cited the Ontario Human Rights Code, which mandates accommodation of religious practice on a caseby-case basis.

The TDSB introduced a religious accommodation policy in 2000 in order to ensure it was in compliance with human rights legislation. It outlines ways to accommodate modesty requirements in gym class, and fasting and dietary requirements, among other things. It also includes limitations that state the board won’t compromise on certain issues, such as public safety or health, in making these accommodations, and that parents must make the request.

Prayer has a long history inside Canadian schools.

Since before Canada became a country, it was a common requirement for students to begin their day with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

In 1982, when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into play, obligatory school prayers became a violation of students' rights to freedom of conscience and religion.

Prayer in schools has remained controversial in the United States where some jurisdictions have attempted to reinstate religious observances in state-sponsored classrooms.

The accommodations for students at Valley Park Middle School are very different.

They amount to allowing prayer inside a school, but does not go so far as the school-directed form of prayer that was outlawed in Canada nearly 30 years ago.

"In a school where there is such a high concentration of Muslim students, this was the best solution that avoided compromising instructional time," said Mr. Spyropoulos.

The issue of separation of church and state is confusing to many Canadians because of their exposure to U.S. media, said Faye Sonier, a lawyer with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. The principle in Canada is supposed to be one of co-operation and accommodation, she added.

"Canada does not, nor has it ever, had a constitutional recognition of the 'separation of church and state,' " she said.

"School boards have an obligation to provide a welcoming environment for all students, including those who hold religious beliefs, and they should seek to reasonably accommodate the beliefs of their students.

"If the board is accommodating the religious beliefs of these students, I should hope that they will assure the religious freedoms of other students as well. For example, in many schools across the country, Christian students have been wrongly denied the ability to hold Bible studies over lunch or recess, and most recently, parents seeking to exempt their children from classes inconsistent with their faith have been challenged. We would hope that the accommodation shown to this group would be extended to Christian students as well."


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