US & Canada

Toronto-area Peel District School Board in Muslim prayer row

HJA Brown Education Centre in Mississauga, Ontario Image copyright Peel District School Board
Image caption The Peel District School Board meets at the HJA Brown Education Centre in Mississauga, Ontario

A school board in Ontario has become a flashpoint in the religious accommodation debate over Muslim prayers in school. The board says the matter is settled but detractors say the fight is far from over.

Pages torn from a Koran. Cries of "that's a hate group" and "there is no peace in Islam".

In March, a public meeting of one of Canada's largest public school boards descended into chaos over a policy of religious accommodation that has been in place for more than 15 years.

The Peel District School Board says the debate over whether Muslim students can hold voluntary Friday prayer sessions on school grounds is settled and has been for a long time.

They accuse some opponents of whipping up tensions with "deliberate misinformation" and say 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 say they are not done protesting against a practice they decry as "unequal and unfair".

The controversy began last September when the school board, which serves a diverse population part of the Greater Toronto Area, decided to replace an old policy to make things easier for school administrative staff.

They decided to scrap student-written sermons for Friday prayers, which had to be reviewed by school staff, and replace them with six pre-written sermons.

Muslim students and parents were unhappy with the change, complaining it was too restrictive. The board reverted to its old policy in January.

But that debate brought attention to the broader religious accommodation policy that allows for the prayers in the first place.

Under the Ontario Human Rights Code, all school boards in the province are required to reasonably accommodate the faith needs of their students.

Now some parents and other groups are saying that allowing Muslim students to pray on school grounds is taking accommodation a step too far.

It is a debate that has flared up in Canada before, though it is difficult to pin down how many schools across the province have on-campus prayers.

Most of Peel District's 38 secondary schools offer prayers for Muslim students. Many have for years.

Image copyright AFP

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

The group cites a number of concerns with allowing Muslim students to hold prayer sessions in the district's schools, arguing that it allows for the visible segregation of students and creates a space where there is possible unsolicited exposure to religion.

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

Bayer and other opponents also say they are concerned with gender segregation during the prayer sessions, a key point of contention when a Toronto school made headlines for its Friday prayers in 2011.

The school board says that while gender segregation during the Friday prayers is not condoned, it is sometimes preferred by students. When students are separated by sex, they are encouraged to sit to the left and right of the prayer room instead of having the girls praying at the back of the room, although that practice continues in some schools.

The debate boiled over last month, despite the board shelling out for extra security at recent meetings.

Roops wanted to present a petition to the board on 22 March calling for an immediate end to all religious congregation and faith clubs in the Peel District. The petition has received over 6,200 signatures, a number from other parts of Canada. Several citizens opposed to the Friday prayers were in attendance, and the meeting grew heated.

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.

One man began tearing pages from the Koran and throwing them on the floor.

She eventually stood up to confront the people she describes as "violent, bigoted voices" - a shouting match captured in a video by Syed Imam, a former student in the district who was at the meeting to show his support for Friday prayers.

Bayer calls the events that evening "unfortunate".

"There were some emotional people that started screaming and shouting," he says.

Security eventually cleared the room. The pages of the Koran were collected by members of the board, and the book was kept in a safe place until it could be transferred to a local imam for disposal.

Image copyright Roops/Change.org
Image caption A petition against the practice received over 6,000 signatures

It is unclear how much opposition to the accommodation comes from parents and how much from groups like Rise Canada, an anti-Islam organisation. Some politicians have distanced themselves from the group over its views.

Rise Canada adviser Ron Banerjee says they were involved with connecting concerned groups opposed to the religious accommodation policy, and that there is broad community support to have the policy scrapped.

Banerjee was involved in a similar unsuccessful campaign against Friday prayers in a Toronto school in 2011.

He was at the meeting and says "we neither support nor condemn" the actions that night, and that he does not know if any of the participants were supporters of his group.

"Often when people go to these events they go as individuals," he says.

One attendee alleges Banerjee was among those yelling during the meeting, which Banerjee denies.

Meanwhile, parent Bayer says the district would be complying with the provincial rights code by simply allowing students to leave school to attend local mosques.

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", noting that allowing a student to "participate fully in educational services" is the key consideration.

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

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

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Media captionThe BBC's discussion on Islamophobia with interviewee Ruqaiya Haris was interrupted by Islamophobia

The religious accommodation would also allow students of other faiths to leave class to pray, though Imam notes that Islam has a Friday congregational prayer duty that falls during school time.

Peel District School Board spokesman Brian Woodland says the schools handle regular requests relating to religion, including multiple groups who request accommodation for curricular issues like sex education, and individual students who request a quiet space to pray.

The school board says religious accommodation is a provincial matter and will not be on the agenda in April. On Friday, it announced new security measures for future board meetings.

Peel regional police say they are investigating "all reported incidents" stemming from clashes at the board meetings and that they "are treating these incidents very seriously".

Detractors of the policy say they are planning to file a human rights complaint and are willing to fight the Peel District all the way to the Supreme Court.

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