Praying in School

Posted January 20, 2017
By Danielle S. McLaughlin

The Peel District School Board, a public and secular board of education, met recently to decide what Muslim students should be permitted to say during their Friday Jumu’ah prayers.

A secular non-Muslim authority is requiring students to have their approval for the content of religious observances. What does this say about freedom of religion? And what about freedom of expression?

A 2016 decision by this school board had ensured “safety” by obliging the students involved in the Friday prayers to use one of six pre-written and pre-approved sermons. Prior to that decision, students had been permitted to write their own sermons, within certain parameters.

But why have religious practices in public schools at all?  The education authority previously decided to allow certain religious practices in its schools, during instructional hours, because they saw this as a reasonable way to accommodate a religious group. After all, the “secular” week was set up to accommodate the Judeo-Christian majority. Weekends fall on Saturday and Sunday, which enables Christians and Jews to celebrate their Sabbaths during a time when they do not normally go to school. The Islamic holy day is Friday, which falls on a “weekday” when school is generally in session. Because the secular education system continues to operate during Fridays, the authorities apparently felt they had to find a way to let Muslim students celebrate their faith in the way in which their faith tells them to do so.

Peel, like other secular school boards has tried to accommodate students whose faiths require specific observances during school hours by making space and time available for religious gatherings. But who gets to decide which students can be included and which will not? If a faith traditionally separates boys and girls during prayers, should a school permit this separation? Normally, boys and girls work and study together. But there are times they might be separated, such as for physical education classes or other gender specific programming. Girls used to study home economics while boys learned shop skills. Now, if schools offer these courses, they are open to all interested students.

Religious observances are not academic courses. Secular public schools can and should teach students ABOUT religions, but is there any place for religious observance in schools? Some would like to excise any appearance of religion in education, but others point to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and to Human Rights legislation which protect religious freedom. Public schools cannot privilege one religion over another, nor can they trample on the rights of those who are religious. We will not be able to resolve this conundrum easily.

Now, back to the Peel School Board, which has decided to give Muslim students the right to use school facilities and time at the end of the day on Fridays, to hold prayers. Fair enough, but the Board wants to know what will be said during these prayer sessions. Why does the school board want to know? What is their concern? Would they ask a Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Indigenous Spiritual, Hindu or Jain group to submit their sermons for approval? Are Islamic students under special scrutiny? If so, why?

It appears that the conditions under which the Muslim students are given the right to use school facilities have included prior-restraint. Students who do not want to select from six pre-approved sermons are required to submit their own, student-written sermons for approval by the school’s principal before being permitted to use them in the school. Other than passages to be read directly from the Qur’an, sermons must be delivered in English. Sermons must comply with the school’s code of conduct, the Education Act, and its regulations, and the Ontario Human Rights Code. For a religious sermon? There are so many potential conflicts here that it is difficult to know where to begin.

And generally, a Muslim member of staff is assigned to oversee the student-lead services. While it is a regular practice in schools to have a teacher or other staff member assigned to oversee student-lead activities, I cannot think of another instance when that staff member must belong to a specific faith. Could that staff person stop a sermon they think inappropriate? Under what conditions? Should students have the rights to freely express themselves in schools? The students certainly think so. Other community members seem to think differently.

We teach our children that they live in a democratic society where we are all rights holders who are subject to the rule of law. The way in which religious students are treated will have a resounding effect throughout everyone’s education. The conversation must continue because we all need and deserve a voice.