Christians, Jews, Hindus, and other parties have been up in arms after the recent, widespread exposure of a Canadian school's policy allowing an imam to lead Muslim students in prayer on campus.
While many are voicing their opposition to prayer being allowed in a public school at all, others are crying hypocrisy since prayers by other faith groups are prohibited at Valley Park Middle School in Toronto, in Southern Ontario. Prayers by students of other faiths, such as Christianity or Judaism, are not allowed.
Various groups have been rallying against the Toronto District School Board for various reasons concerning the case, but most are insisting that the board is violating Ontario’s Education Act by allowing prayers of any kind. The act bans religious services during school hours.
The imam-led prayers have been going on for the past three years, according to the school board. Board officials say they worked with parents to decide on the 30-minute prayer sessions. About 80-90 percent of the student body at Valley Park Middle School follow Islam, according to media reports, and about 300-400 students participate in the Friday prayers.
Critics have taken issue with what they see as preferential treatment for Muslims. Some are also concerned that the Muslim students who gather for Friday prayers in the school cafeteria are separated by gender, as they would be in a mosque.
Officials with the school board say their reasoning for accommodating Muslim students is to “maximize instructional time.” Students are allowed to leave school on Fridays for prayers, but apparently too many of them fail to return to school afterward.
Some question the board's reasoning, saying the prayer sessions also disrupt students' class time.
Board officials insist Canada's freedom of religion laws allow them to make an exception for the Education Act's prohibition on religious services during school hours. Board members say students participate voluntarily and with parents' permission.
In a statement issued on its website last week, the board said: “Where religious accommodation is concerned, the law is quite clear: freedom of religion in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms supersedes the Education Act. As a public school board, we have a responsibility and an obligation to accommodate faith needs.”
The board's statement also hits back at critics who say allowing an imam on campus to lead prayers makes way for indoctrination, insisting that religious practice is not being taught at the school.
The board's official position is not good enough for some groups who wonder the affect the organized prayers might have on students of other faiths.
“It has the potential to stigmatize non-participants and gives the potential to give an official seal of approval to a given religion,” Ed Morgan, a law professor and president of the Canadian Jewish Congress, told CJNews.com.
Some members of the Muslim community have also criticized the school board's decision.
“The reality of that is that the school board is being politically correct and naive,” Salma Siddiqui, senior vice-president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, told the Globe and Mail. “Honestly it does not work in the long run. How are they going to accommodate other religious minorities?”
Members of Toronto's Hindu community are voicing their opposition to the prayers at Valley Park Middle School as well.
Ron Banerjee, director of Canadian Hindu Advocacy, told the Globe and Mail that he believes 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.”
Although the school is presently in summer recess, the prayer sessions are expected to resume in the Fall when students return to their studies, which runs from November to May.
A recent case here in the U.S. regarding prayer in schools involves a lawsuit involve a Texas student and Medina Valley Independent School District. Corwyn Schultz, who graduated in May, is an agnostic and he and his parents found it offensive that there was a call for prayer at his graduation ceremony. The lawsuit filed by his parents claimed that the district forces prayer on students at school-sponsored events.
Federal Judge Fred Biery, who sided with Schultz in his decision, had his ruling overturned. The case has yet to be resolved as Biery has now called on the respective parties to notify him by July 21 whether they plan to continue to pursue the case.