And so it continues.
The ongoing and controversial conversation about religion and its place within Canadian schools has reignited another quarrel between competing religious communities.
This past week, we learned that Valley Park Middle School, in Toronto has been allowing a Muslim prayer service in their cafeteria for the past three years without one single complaint from the community.
The Muslim Canadian Congress have officially joined other groups like the Canadian Hindu Advocacy and Jewish Defense League to voice their disapproval of the school’s decision to accommodate religious (prayer) requests within the public school system.
Administrators at Valley Park Middle School contend that this is not a unique occurrence and that accommodations for all types of different religious requests are examined locally across the hundreds of schools in the city.
In addition, the administrators suggest that the school is simply following their obligations under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
What is happening:
Every Friday, during the school year, male and female Muslim students are separated - males at the front, and females at the back behind a divider. And, if the female is menstruating, she is to sit on the sidelines.
All of this happens during school hours and on publicly-funded school property.
Two views on the matter:
This is clearly an issue of contention, with two distinct reactions. Let me attempt to dissect this issue, without being reactionary or unreasonable.
One of the responses to this matter is a resounding objection to any religion infiltrating publicly-funded schools. The contention is that Ontario (and Canada) is a secular society and therefore, our schools should be free from religious (or political) indoctrination and practice.
The other view, is less rigid and suggests that our public schools should be safe pluralistic spaces. In them, there should be the capacity to accommodate student’s religious requests as long as those requests do not interfere with the overall educational curriculum.
In this specific case, perhaps the school has overstepped its obligation to accommodate, by reaching out and inviting an imam to lead the service inside the school. However, it needs to be noted that the curriculum has been untouched.
Ontario, nor Canada, is truly a secular society.
Religion, mainly Christianity, is enshrined in several provincial constitutions. In fact, millions of public dollars go into (Christian) schools, churches, and organizations across Canada every single year.
So, in my opinion, if someone is going to make a claim that Muslims (or Jews, or Hindus) should not be afforded the opportunity to practice elements of their religion within our public school systems because “we are secular”, then it is time we measure all religions and their relationship with the state using the same logic.
We either make a choice to be a genuinely secular society, free of all religions within our public institutions, or we accept and fund them all.
Canada as it is now, has decided to take the middle of the road, where we’ve attempted to straddle a soft secularist position that deals with these matters on a case by case basis.
That’s fine, some may suggest, but what about non-Muslims not being allowed into the services being provided? And girls being relegated into the back rows of the cafeteria? How archaic and un-Canadian is that?
My response: True, it’s disturbing, but how about gay teenagers not being allowed to form support groups in publicly-funded Catholic schools? Why is it that tax-payers dollars are going into a school system that uses religious ethos to justify a hierarchy of acceptable citizenship within our schools?
Why is it that as a society, we are comfortable with one type of religious discrimination, yet uncomfortable and fearful of another?
A difficult conversation needs to take place and a decision needs to be made.
The question is not simply what is the appropriate and acceptable compromise between religion and education. Answering this question is inadequate. We, as a society, need to stop having piecemeal discussions about issues that are much large in scope.
The real question is this: is there a place for religion in Canada’s public institutions?
My answer to that is, yes, with caution.
The direction I believe to be the appropriate way forward is one that sees differences coexist. What we need more of in our schools (and our public institutions) is an environment that nurtures pluralism and acceptance. Not one that advocates for the building of walls between cultures, languages, and religions.
To restrict students the time and space to pray and worship, even within our public school system or any other public space for that matter, would be undemocratic.
To allow any religion to further infiltrate our public institutions, without public concern and hesitation, would be erroneous and destructive.
And so we continue to chose the middle way: a reluctant agreement to continue to build an imperfect Canada.
But at least we have the decency as a nation, at every point of contention, to sit down and discuss things through.