Muslim prayer in school exposes flaws of religious accomodation
The Holy Post, 11 July 2011
The Holy Post, 11 July 2011
The recent objections to Muslim prayer sessions in a Toronto public school by the Canadian Hindu Advocacy have created a controversy over the accommodation of religion in schools.
For the past three years, Valley Park Middle School has allowed a local imam to conduct prayer services in its cafeteria on Friday afternoons. The arrangement was organized by a group of parents and the Toronto District School Board, which allows students who choose to partake in the 30-minute service to miss time from classes. The rationale behind the agreement is that bringing the imam to students in school is more practical than having students go to a nearby mosque.
According to reports in the National Post, between 80 and 90 percent of the students at Valley Park Middle School are the children of Muslim parents.
There are several problems with this arrangement that relate to secularism and religious accommodation, which is still a rather nebulous legal concept in Canada.
The most significant problem is that allowing Islamic religious services to be conducted in a public school is unfair to non-Muslims, non-believers, and even Muslims themselves. If students are to be categorized based on their parentsí religion (itself a mistake), then the school board is obligated to treat all such groups equally. There are only two possible ways to do this: open the school to every religious, or erect a wall of separation between public schools and religion.
Choosing the first option would fundamentally alter the character of public schools.
First, it would involve the inclusion of religious officials into the school environment who are not educators and who may not be accountable to school regulations. This is one of the problems facing Valley Park Middle School, as the imam who conducts the prayer sessions is not a teacher but rather a religious official selected by a group of Muslim parents.
Second, this model opens the door to religious proselytizing in schools, from which all students should be protected.
Third, it would undermine state education as a public institution by creating autonomous groups that act outside of government supervision. In this case, the school board has acknowledged that it does not involve itself with the prayer exercises in any way, even though staff members from the school convert the cafeteria to a makeshift mosque every Friday afternoon.
Finally, the doctrines that are promoted by some religious groups directly compromise the social objectives of public education, including the promotion of gender equality, the alleviation of social pressures on gay students (many Muslim imams and Christian priests vociferously object to equal rights for homosexuals) and the full integration of students from different backgrounds. Identifying groups of students by the religion of their parents, and subsequently inviting religious officials into schools, serves only to divide students. Social exclusion is explicit in this current case, as non-Muslims are prohibited from entering the cafeteria during the prayer sessions.
This issue is analogous to the controversy over the Lordís Prayer in schools during the 1980s, when the courts decided that reciting the prayer stigmatized and ridiculed children who chose to exclude themselves. At Valley Park Middle School, it is certain that having Friday Muslim prayers will result in unfair pressure on students who choose not to participate. If schools were to allow the faith groups of all students to be officially represented in schools, this effect would only be magnified. Protecting non-conformists is an extremely important characteristic of public education that cannot be compromised in the name of religious accommodation.
Removing all religious exercises from public schools is a much better way of ensuring that individual students are treated fairly. It encourages social cohesion among students of different backgrounds, which can only be a positive outcome. This is a common sense solution. While the formation of faith-based extra-curricular student groups is defensible on the grounds of free association, allowing religious groups to conduct services in public schools during school hours is an encroachment of religion into secular education, to which both religious and non-religious people should object. Students should never be made to feel inferior for their religious beliefs, or lack thereof, and should always feel that their school environment is a welcoming one. The only way of continuing this tradition of inclusion is to ensure that no particular religious belief is endorsed or promulgated within the public school system.
|Jackson Doughart||jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com|