Islamic Prayers Allowed in Toronto Schools

We’re so used to atheists going after prayer in public schools that it’s a pleasant shock when any other group leads the charge against it. But that’s what’s happening in Toronto:

A Hindu group [Canadian Hindu Advocacy] that regularly criticizes Islam is going after a Toronto school for holding prayer sessions for Muslim students on Friday afternoons, arguing that it violates principles of secularism in the public school system.

For about three years, Valley Park Middle School on Overlea Boulevard in Flemingdon Park has held the services in its cafeteria after non-Muslim students are finished [with] lunch. An imam from a nearby mosque leads the sessions, which last 30 to 40 minutes.

“This is so sad,” [Gerri Gershon, the trustee for the area] said. “This is part of our religious accommodation policy.”

Incidentally, the Canadian Secular Alliance and the Jewish Defense League have joined the Hindu group against allowing these prayer sessions.

I don’t know the legality of all this since it’s voluntary, but the first question I had was: if the prayer takes 30-40 minutes after lunch, how much class time are these students missing?

I’m also curious if the boys and girls are kept separate. Do other religious groups get access to school facilities during the day?

It hardly sounds like a reasonable accommodation. And it opens the door for other faiths to make absurd requests of their own.

At what point can we just tell parents to leave the religion at home and let school be a place where everyone gets a secular education?

(Thank to The Supreme Canuck for the link)

***Update***: Reader Tony points out some of the problems with this prayer:

Justin from the Toronto Centre For Inquiry was on the radio talking about this and he raised some salient points:

Firstly non-muslims are not welcome to these prayer meetings. This is divisive and counter to Canadian principles.

Secondly teachers are expected to help as part of their duties to set up the cafeteria for use as a mosque – a mosque which they are thereafter not permitted to enter because they are not muslims, see point #1.

Thirdly and most egregiously, the students attending are segregated into male and females, this breaching another Canadian value of equality between sexes.

Attendance is “voluntary” but it is all too easy to see how coercive students could pressurize disinterested secular muslims into taking part, and there is something sinister about giving a non-educater religious leader basically unfettered access to a whole generation of kids.

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  • Craig Hansen

    From what I understand, boys and girls sit at opposite sides of the cafeteria.

    I think the most disagreeable part, is that they bring in their own imam to lead the prayers.

  • Yet Another Atheist

    Any organization (especially one that apparently is supposed to be secular in nature) with a “religious accommodation policy” is doomed to failure.

  • Nakor

    Not sure there’s anything strictly illegal about it here in Canada unfortunately. I know that church-state-separation are not in our constitution at least.

    None of which means that this will necessarily be seen as acceptable, mind. I guess we’ll see.

  • Roxane

    Hemant, you’ll know doubt be tickled to know that about fifty years ago, my class regularly got pulled out my elementary arithmetic class to go across the street, where some little old ladies read us Bible stories (and feed us cookies and lemonade–that part was cool). Who knows? If not for them, my whole history with math might have been at least a little better!

  • Spurs Fan

    The Hindu group is “arguing that it violates principles of secularism in the public school system”. That’s refreshing. Imagine a Christian group filing a lawsuit based on that!

  • Suburban Sweetheart

    I don’t really see a problem with this – nor do I see anything wrong with religious accommodation policies, in general. While I may not always agree with religion, I do recognize & respect others’ beliefs, & I think that, when possible, accommodations should be made for religious individuals, so long as they don’t infringe upon the rights or beliefs of anyone else. Saying that religious people should leave religion at home when they come to school is akin to saying they should leave it behind when they come to work, too, that religious people should only be religious people in their own homes & their places of worship. Do you believe that a Muslim woman who wants to wear her head scarf should, in fact, not be allowed to work at an Abercrombie & Fitch, who has tried to ban headscarves from their strict dress code, or that a Sikh man with a beard should not be allowed to work in food services, even if he covers it with a hairnet (which the law has deemed acceptable, by the way)? While I agree with you quite often, I feel strongly that opposing sensible religious accommodations can only lead to an increase in religious discrimination which is, well, discriminatory. And no matter how you feel about religion, I hope none of us is “for” discrimination!

    I worded this poorly, but I hope my views make some sense! (I, too, wonder how much class they’re missing. I wonder if perhaps these students have scheduled study halls after lunch, & they used this time for prayer? I see that as being fine, as long as, obviously, it’s not required of anyone.)

  • Yet Another Atheist

    @Suburban: The problem with your analogy to work is that public schools, at least here in the U.S., are run by the government and paid for by taxpayers, which means they are subject to the rule that religion can’t be endorsed by said schools.

    Places of employment, as private businesses, can have whatever rules they want, especially in terms of dress code, and if religious items like head scarves are banned by the dress code, then it’s a tricky issue. On one hand, the Muslim woman can claim discrimination, but on the other hand, it’s a private business with the right to make whatever rules they feel necessary.

    It’s where Progressivism clashes with Libertarianism, and since I consider myself to be a little bit of both, I honestly haven’t made up my mind on the issue yet. Both sides have valid cases.

    But in terms of public schools, religion has no place there — especially because these are children with impressionable minds, and because endorsing religion A to a child whose parents practice religion B, means that those parents’ right to practice their religion with their child is being violated.

  • Andrew Hall

    It’s not a religious accommodation policy that they have, rather it’s a religious appeasement policy.

  • dpeabody

    Just a fun anecdote, my school in the UK had religious assemblies once a month for an hour. You could go to whatever faiths assembly you wanted, (I think I went to all of them) but best of all there was a non religious assembly where a debate would be held, Sometimes on serious topics and sometimes silly topics (This house would ban Santa.)

    It was very enjoyable and nobody felt left out.

  • Roselin

    My mother’s on the school board so I’ve been hearing a fair bit about this lately. I’m a pretty vocal secular education advocate but this doesn’t bother me that much for a couple of reasons.

    First, the students’ parents arranged for the imam to lead the prayers, not the school. The school’s merely providing the space. They’re not providing any other resources.

    Second, the Muslim students (and there are a lot at this school) were missing class on Friday afternoons to attend prayers. This was a pragmatic solution developed a few years ago that was intended to address that and, as far as I know, the students aren’t missing class time with this arrangement.

    The boys and girls are kept separate, which generally bothers me but is in line with what would be happening at the mosque anyway. Still don’t like it though.

    The print version of this article has much more information in it, but hopefully this clears up a few of the main questions!

  • Yet Another Atheist

    @dpeabody: See, something like that I would love to see done. But of course, in the U.S., the Christians (with their majority-rule superiority complex) would never go for such a thing and would lobby against it to the point where it would never happen.

  • Lena

    Imagine a Christian group filing a lawsuit based on that!

    Since the praying students are Muslim, that’s easy enough for me to imagine.

    I don’t know. I don’t like the praying during class time, but if it’s voluntary and the school isn’t actually paying the iman, and similar accommodations are made for other religious groups, I’d be inclined to let it go. I actually really like what dpeabody described.

  • Annie

    I don’t understand how these children aren’t missing class time. Unless the other students get free time for 30-40 minutes after lunch (which is rare for this grade level), some students are missing out… because of religion. I wonder if they are excused every week, or if their grades reflect missing 1/5th of a subject’s instruction each week.

  • KC

    I think the “its voluntary” and its “not officially sanctioned” are weak arguments. Imagine if back when prayer was being eliminated from the schools that the Christians had informally brought in a pastor/priest/etc for a “voluntary” prayer. I dont think it can be truly called “voluntary”.

  • koyote_ken

    I wonder how many Muslims are going to die in riots in the Middle East when news of this gets out………….

  • Victor

    If it’s set up like American schools, there’s a half hour recess after lunch. So, it sounds like they are ‘sacrificing’ kickball or prayer. Someday they’ll walk out into the sun, and after that … they’re all ours.

  • Gaby A.

    Complicating everything in this issue, at least here in Toronto, is there is also a Catholic School Board, that gets funding from the province. This is, as far as I understand, enshrined in law. That has been the biggest thorn in the side of supposed secularism in schools here in Toronto. A couple years ago, a mayoral candidate suggested more religious schools be set up to be “fair”, caused an uproar, and of course he lost. Recently, one of the Catholic schools banned a gay-straight alliance club from displaying a rainbow to a bake sale, and forced the students to donate all money raised to a catholic children’s charity. This gaping hole in Ontario will keep the door open for all religious groups to demand more presence in public schools.

  • Z

    My old school had christian services in the gym every week before school started. attendance was not mandatory, but a lot of students liked it. If the kids are getting out of class time for this, and if other groups cannot hold their own services, then it’s wrong, but otherwise I have no problem with optional religious services at school.

  • Anon

    Canadian Hindu Advocacy often opposes Islam and Sikhism. During a speech at a 2010 rally for right-wing Dutch politician Geert Wilders, Mr. Banerjee said Islam is less a religion than an ideology, and that Islamic civilization had contributed “less to human advancement than a pack of donkeys.”

    This shows at least Mr. Banerjees ignorance. Islam was the leader of science for a long time, I think it was up until the mongol sacking of Baghdad that Islam held science in high esteem. After that an imam declared science an enemy of Islam, and after that they went back a few centuries… But hey, the western world picked up on what they so far had done, which saved us a lot of trouble.

    PS: I hate islam, just trying to be fair towards it though.

  • Anon

    I found another article written by the newspaper two days ago which touched on islam, I think you’ll find this article interesting, especially the second half, pretty spot on if you ask me:

  • Lin

    I live very near the Greater Toronto Area.
    I caught a snippet of this on the news tonight, and my first thought was “I’ll have to go to Friendly Atheist and read the whole story.”

  • Tony

    Justin from the Toronto Centre For Inquiry was on the radio talking about this and he raised some salient points:

    Firstly non-muslims are not welcome to these prayer meetings. This is divisive and counter to Canadian principles.

    Secondly teachers are expected to help as part of their duties to set up the cafeteria for use as a mosque – a mosque which they are thereafter not permitted to enter because they are not muslims, see point #1.

    Thirdly and most egregiously, the students attending are segregated into male and females, this breaching another Canadian value of equality between sexes.

    Attendance is “voluntary” but it is all too easy to see how coercive students could pressurize disinterested secular muslims into taking part, and there is something sinister about giving a non-educater religious leader basically unfettered access to a whole generation of kids.

    School should not be a place where adults are allowed to proselytise to kids. If this was a student led prayer group then I wouldn’t have a particularly huge problem with it (as long as rules against proselytising were clearly written and rigourously enforced) but this is a local religious leader being brought in by parents and handed over to a basically captive audience.

  • Another_anon

    To be perfectly honest I see no reason for this Hindu group to be complaining about anything. The Toronto District School Board also gives Hindus some pretty significant accommodations when it comes to their religious practices. See pp 16-19 of the following document:

    Guidelines & Procedures For the Accommodation of Religious Requirements, Practices, and Observances.

  • Why

    @Another_anon: I notice that the section on Islam is the longest section in the entire document with the widest variety of accommodations. In fact the only accommodation granted to another religious group that doesn’t have an similar allowance under the Islam section is that Sikhs are allowed to wear a kirpan.

    Perhaps the Hindu group is concerned about an insular religious group being granted special protections in an otherwise fairly secular society? Especially a religion that they’ve had such a long and violent history with extending right up to the present day. Maybe they’re worried about how insular Muslim expat communities around the world are seen to fairly often engage in violence against outsiders? Perhaps the fact that Canada even considers allowing Sharia courts to exist within our borders alarms them?

    To top it all off, this Muslim imam is being granted unrestricted access to impressionable youths while outsiders are forbidden from observing him. Apart from the fact that this setup opens up the muslim youths to possible abuse, a public school is being used to preform religious indoctrination during school hours.

  • Kaylya

    You do have to note that this is in the context where there is an entire publicly funded Catholic school board.

    It may well be that it is using an after lunch recess time and no class time is being missed; and it sounds like this is a solution to a problem where many students were simply leaving school on Friday afternoon to attend services.

    If students are being pressured to go, that is a problem; but I do not feel that providing such a space is necessarily a bad thing.

    This is a lovely letter to the editor by Canadian Hindu Advocacy:

    NATIONAL POST April 9, 2009
    Jonathon Kay claims that poverty and democracy do not mix, yet we have the obvious example of
    the world’s largest democracy, India. Neighboring Pakistan achieved Independence from Britain
    at the same time as India, yet has not embraced democracy.
    Democracy has nothing to do with poverty or wealth, nor is it a function of who the colonial rulers
    happened to be. Rather, it is strictly a function of culture and civilization. The only difference
    between Pakistan and India is that one is a majority Islamic state, while the other has a Hindu

    Judeo-Christian and Hindu civilizations take to democracy like fish to water, while some other
    cultures do not.
    Ron Banerjee

  • Stephen B

    Check out this debate from a Toronto radio station.

    Think I have to agree with the Hindu guy here, but have issues with the way he goes about saying it.

  • Saltyestelle

    So the kids were leaving school early anyway to attend religious services, and the school’s clever solution is to move the religious services to the school to accommodate the community (and keep the full amount of $ they get paid per kid/per day for attendance)? I don’t like it. If parents want to indoctrinate their kids it should be done on personal time. The school should remain a secular institution, and they should explain the attendance policy (with appropriate consequences) to all parents.

  • Arviragus

    In addition to Tony’s comments;

    the girls are forced to sit at the back of the room, behind the men, and are further separated from the girls on their period, who are considered “unclean”.

    The Iman they bring in to speak in these sessions does so in arabic, which the majority of the students don’t actually speak, and to which the teachers are unable to understand what is being “preached” – in which case where is the value?

    Apparently a significant portion of this school is Muslim (approaching 90%)…imagine what kind of distraction this must be for the non-participants when the participants get up to leave. Further – does the teacher continue teaching the class as if the students were dimply absent or is the teaching plan modified to not cover material until they return? If the former, what kind of damage must this missing material be doing to the participants academics…if the latter, then the non-participants are getting shortchanged on their opportunity to learn.

  • Tony

    (and keep the full amount of $ they get paid per kid/per day for attendance)?

    I don’t think the motivation is money. The school still gets paid if they leave early. The motivation is pandering to a religious minority.

    Apparently a significant portion of this school is Muslim (approaching 90%)…imagine what kind of distraction this must be for the non-participants when the participants get up to leave. Further – does the teacher continue teaching the class as if the students were dimply absent or is the teaching plan modified to not cover material until they return?

    My understanding is that this takes place at lunchtime and doesn’t interfere with classes at all. However I am less concerned with the impact on education. If this was, for example, a police officer giving a talk about personal safety or a scientist giving a talk about research or even a local politician or journalist talking about their respective professions and issues then I would be ok with the impact on formal classes. The fact is that this is an aggressively proselytising religion being given a free platform in a public school and this would irk me if it was evangelical christians, scientologists or even an atheist group like CFI.

    If this was a student led prayer club I would welcome it (as long as other students are welcome to create their own clubs) but it isn’t. It’s a local religious leader being brought in to preach to children in a school paid for by my taxes.

  • Passerby

    I’ve read the comments on your web site. 1/3 of the students are missing from class.

    You strike me as a genteel group of posters who 1) know nothing of fundamentalism, 2) know very little of feminism and Islam, 3) know nothing of the power of precedent in schools, 4) do not understand how disruptive changing around an entire teaching schedule is to accommodate a religious demand – even when at lunch because gyms are used for all sorts of extracurricular activities at lunch time and also, need some time to be cleaned in order for the next class to have their time in there for instruction (gym/band practice, etc.)

    However, I’m glad you’re reflecting on the issue.

  • Emily

    Hi! We’ve been in touch before (vis-a-vis gay and interracial adoption), and I know this is coming a little late, but since I live in the above-mentioned city, Toronto, I thought I would respond. The Valley Park Middle School prayer has been a ‘hot issue’ in Toronto. As for myself, I have mixed feeling. Unlike some secularists, I’m not opposed, say, to student-led prayer at graduation ceremonies. And as you say, these prayer sessions may be voluntary. However (and I hope I’m not offending you if Islam happens to be the religion you were raised in), I’m not sure how ‘voluntary’ this is, especially for the girls. I may sound Islamophobic, but I think, for example, there is a difference between a girl wearing a cross or Star of David to school and an Islamic headscarf. So I don’t know if this prayer session should be banned – I tend to lean against that – but I’m not 100% comfortable with it either.

  • RobS

    Hi Emily,

    I’m very sad to here this news, as I am currently in the process of moving to Canada, in particular to Toronto…and one of the reasons for moving is due to the stance that the UK establishment is taking toward religion in general but more disturbingly toward islam.

    I am on a quest to show that Islamophobia is a highly rational state of mind. As you know ‘phobia’  means ‘fear of’ and as I ‘am’ very fearful of Islam in fact hyper fearful, I have no problem being labelled Islamophobic. I am also Naziphobic (Nazis), Misogynophobic (Misogynists) and Theologicophobic (Religions). All of these things threaten human progress.

    I think the UK is steadily on its way toward islamofication, I know this comes across alarmist and maybe even sounds a bit xenophobic, but I assure you, in context we are headed there. This is how it has been able to spread…we as Brits have come to feel so contrite about the actions of our ancestors in the dark history of our nation (religious intolerance, crusades, colonialism, slavery etc.), that as a means of assuaging our brutalized conscience we prostrate ourselves at the altar of relativism, because dare we criticise, we will be labelled racist, colonialist and intolerant brutes…just like our forefathers.

    Now, we all despise these things and quite rightly, but as a result of this cowardly mood of thinking we have in effect dropped our guard and allowed some very dangerous memes to infiltrate our minds. The question you ask is, ‘Do you feel guilt for the actions of your ancestors?’. My answer is ‘absolutely not, don’t be absurd.’, even they could not be held guilty in a properly convened court of public opinion. Does it mean that their behaviour was acceptable? Absolutely not! Their behaviour judged by todays zeitgeist would condemn them without much trouble. 

    But that’s just the point we cannot judge our ancestors by our standards, and even if we did, there is no reason for me to feel guilt about the actions they carried out. My response is that we must not regress to their primitive ways, we must not forget their errors of the past and we must work tirelessly at maintaining and improving  human wellbeing. This involves keeping especially close watch on any attempts to regress to our apelike tendencies.

    These memes play traitor to some of the most progressive martyrs of modern times.  Let’s consider the lives of those small few that had the courage to stand out and be counted. (I’m on my soap box now…sorry, just bare with me…). Take the suffragists & suffragettes for instance, these woman were spat upon, ridiculed in public, demonized and murdered as they pursued equality for woman. We have waged open war with misogyny over the decades that followed to uphold the spirit of this movement. However as woman begin to accept their rights as a given they begin to forget that it was only in 1928 that women got to vote on equal terms as men.

    But we all know that since then the emphasis has broadened to look at equality of women across all spectrums of society. We have made a lot of progress, so much so that I think today most women are not aware of the struggle that their sisters and mothers had to face to win ‘their’ freedom.

    Islam is openly the biggest enemy of women in modern times, and I find it utterly absurd that most people nod respectfully at the notion that as islam is a religion  muslims should be allowed to spew their misogynistic vitriol without any contest or protest. If it’s islamic culture to cover a woman because they feel it’s disrespectful to show her body, them we politely nod and say ‘well ok, it must be good’, ‘BULL-SHINONA!’ I say, it’s only disrespectful to the small pubic-hair-invested-heads of the men of this religion, that they feel justified in brutalizing the women of their tribe. Imagine sticking a sack over your daughter’s head…there is no way you think of her as your equal…

    Now we have women being subjected to this vile culture of the burqa in the UK, being made to feel like you should be ashamed of showing you face and/or hair. We have had countless TV debates where muslim women will come on and vehemently defend their right to express their religious and cultural devotion by donning these degrading obscene garments. These women were around during the struggles of the suffragettes too, they were the ones who defended the right to be classed as chattel to their better halves.

    So? You might ask, if a girl that appears on TV wants to wear a burqa, then she should be allowed to, surely we should not tell her that her desire to wear one is wrong. Well if you had an inkling of intellectual honesty you would know that if she does not like wearing the burqa could have very dire consequences for her. Death even, honour killings (why they are called honour killings is beyond me) are regarded as quite effective in dealing with rebellious teens. Perhaps she would look better in the eyes of her family and community if she stood up for this barbaric practice. Of course she’s going defend the practice, she stands to be shunned or killed if she doesn’t…ask Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

    I’m not saying that we should ban the  burqa (as in France), but I do feel the best way to deal with this has been neutralised by this competing meme (to prostrate oneself in respect for others’ religion and culture), because we don’t want to be seen as the aggressors that our ancestors were. How should we in the west deal with this malevolent meme/practice? In my view, there is only one way this can be done, and it’s the only way it has been done before, you need to shame them into seeing the error of their way’s. How do we respond to racists?, we drown them out with boos and jeers, we shake our heads in disgust at them and they have learnt by this that they are wrong. 

    So too should we behave toward a man who walks along with his chattel en tow, beburqa’d and cowering. He should be shunned, booed and jeered at until he conforms to our enlightened zeitgeist, not only will help him, but by helping his wife it will help his children too.

    The situation in the UK has got so bad here that we have introduced sharia tribunals that can act as quasi courts on such matters as divorce and inheritance, two of the least qualified fields for practice of sharia. Now ‘Nadia’ not only has to keep schtum about wearing her burqa but when her dad says that she has to accept that her brother gets double what she should get from her aunt’s will because they’ve opted for this sharia tribunal, she will have to grin and bare that too.

    I have two girls a sister and a mother, and I will not stand for their being demonised for being female…I look through barbaric bearded man I see walking down the street with his burqa’d bride en tow and I go out of my way to make him feel miniscule.

    Needless to say, the principal of this school is an IDIOT MORON of epic proportion, and he is openly inviting in the demise of female equality. Other than this islam is as bad as the other abrahamic religions, and has NO PLACE in school, just as racists have NO PLACE in a tolerant society so should we think of islam. If I were the principal faced with an imams request to show tolerance, I would say ‘you first’,  and then ask two questions…‘does your religion profess that woman are in any way less than men?’, if he says ‘yes’, then I use this as grounds for denying access to children, and if he says ‘no’ then I point him to sura 4 verse 34 and show him the door on the same grounds. My second question is ‘since the quran says that death is the sentence for apostates…is the quran correct in your view?’

    The parents who do nothing are equally culpable for this calumnious action and should be ashamed of themselves. Sorry for the rant…