- Critics claim Toronto District School Board is breaching Ontario's Education Law by allowing Islamic prayer during the school day
- An outside imam comes to the school to conduct weekly prayer meetings
- Young girls who are menstruating are not allowed to participate and are separated from the group
In America, the debate over prayer and its place in public schools never seems to simmer. But, we're not alone. The heated discussion over faith in public education is occurring in Toronto, Canada, as well. In addition to general frustration over prayer, advocates and critics are outraged by the fact that young Islamic girls are separated from others during meetings due to menstruation -- a provision that indicates Sharia law is potentially being imposed in the public school.
These critics claim that the Ontario middle school is breaching Ontario's Education Act -- a law that provides guidelines for religion's place in the public school system.
To provide more in-depth details, the Toronto District School Board has been under fire for allowing an imam to hold Friday prayer services for Muslim students. These weekly religious meetings occur in Valley Park Middle School's (again, a public educational facility) cafeteria. Between 300 and 400 of the school's 1,200 students take part in the weekly meeting.
While critics remain outraged, the district argues that freedom of religion trumps the Education Act and states that the district has an "obligation to accommodate faith needs." Since Muslims must pray at a certain time during the day on Fridays, the district believes it is simply providing an avenue to ensure that young people can maintain their religious beliefs and practices. In the past, students would leave the school to worship at outside mosques. This created a variety of attendance issues for the district.
To be clear on the matter, the Education Act reads as follows:
Subject to subsections (2) and (3), a board shall not permit any person to conduct religious exercises or to provide instruction that includes indoctrination in a particular religion or religious belief in a school.
Sections (2) and (3) highlight some exceptions to this rule. Among them, the board may permit a person to conduct religious instruction "that includes indoctrination" if it is not conducted by or under the authority of the board, and if the activities are conducted "before or after the school's instructional program" (or on a non-school day). Critics maintain that these exemptions have not been met and that the Friday activities are, thus, breaching the law.
Some, including at least one imam, have made suggestions to address the controversy. Since having an outside religious leader come into the school appears to be problematic, students could be trained to deliver their own sermons (though religious teaching would require that only boys do so). But, for now, this suggestion has not yet been implemented and controversy remains. The Toronto Star has more:
Valley Park’s prayer services, which until recently operated without complaint, have raised a debate about the place of religion in an increasingly diverse public system. One Hindu group plans protests, and the progressive Muslim Canadian Congress is contemplating legal action to force the board to comply with the Education Act.
Below, watch a representative of a Hindu advocacy group explain opposition to the "special accommodations" allotted to the school's Muslim population:
But, it's not just the existence of the prayer services that have people in an uproar. Surprisingly, the meeting is conducted in Arabic and the school does not monitor what is said. Additionally, boys and girls enter separately, with the girls wearing scarves and shawls to cover their heads and arms.
The most contentious issue, though, is the fact that girls who are menstruating are forced to sit at the back of the pack; they are permitted to listen but cannot take part (see the picture to the left). The New American has more about why this separation takes place:
“Unclean” is the word Muslims use for girls who are menstruating. Sharia law states they must be separated from the "clean" students.
Watch a news report, below, that covers the young girls' separation due to their menstruation:
On FiveFeetofFury, blogger Kathy Shaidle expresses her opinions on the matter, referencing the now infamous segregation picture:
Yep, that’s part of the caption of the Toronto Star photo [the original caption read, "At Valley Park Middle School, Muslim students participate in the Friday prayer service. Menstruating girls, at the very back, do not take part"].
Yes, the country is Canadaand the year is 2011.
Meanwhile over 150 Canadian soldiers died in Afghanistan to (ostensibly) fight for the rights and dignity of young Muslim women like these.
Mark Steyn also covers about the situation and the image, writing:
Not some exotic photojournalism essay from an upcountry village in Krappistan. But a typical Friday at a middle school in the largest city in Canada. I forget which brand of tampon used to advertise itself with the pitch "Now with new [whatever] you can go horse-riding, water-ski-ing, ballet dancing, whatever you want to do", but perhaps they can just add the tag: "But not participate in Friday prayers at an Ontario public school.
With the debate heating up over the past month, there's no telling where this situation will lead. Some commentators claim that this is an opportunity for other groups to request special accommodations as well, while others believe religious activities have no place in public schools during daily instructional periods. Either way, the language barrier and the segregation of young girls are both problems the district will likely need to contend with.
Advocates fear outside imam has brought Sharia Law into the public school