Schools are not, technically speaking, Linda Jeffrey’s business. The Mayor of Brampton and former Liberal MPP has no formal role in the Peel Region School Board’s policies, curriculum, or administration. But still, things have gotten bad enough that she felt the need to weigh in on school matters last week.
At issue is Peel Region’s longstanding practice of letting Muslim students take time on Friday afternoons for prayer and religious discussion. This mirrors a similar practice in at least one Toronto school, and several in York Region. It’s been going on for a generation, but all of a sudden Peel’s accommodation motivated 150 or so people to protest the school board a few days ago, on a very chilly Saturday.
Insofar as anything actually got this particular ball of ugliness rolling, it was the board’s debate last year over whether to censor the sermons used by students during their Friday prayers. Trustees rejected that proposal in response to community criticism — and possible legal challenges — but the fact they'd even considered it led to the issue getting put on the agenda for a public meeting in January. That meeting got ugly, with representatives of groups like Rise Canada (an organization perpetually aggrieved at the existence of Muslims in Canada) saying things like “Islam is poison.” And that led to Jeffrey speaking out against the “hateful speech” at that acrimonious debate.
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On Monday, the mayor told TVO.org she felt her expression of support for the Muslim community was needed after hearing from religious leaders, who were anxious about the tone of attacks they were facing on social media and elsewhere. “I want people to feel welcome in Brampton; I want them to feel safe. I want them to know I have their backs.”
Jeffrey’s not the first mayor to have to go to bat for her Muslim constituents, and not even the first in Peel Region: to the south, Mississauga's Mayor Bonnie Crombie has had a running battle with Islamophobic critics for years now.
There’s a reasonable, respectful argument to be had about how far public schools should go to accommodate religious practices — where that means a discussion about the role of religion in general, not Islam in particular — in a secular environment. That debate might be happening somewhere, but it’s light-years away from what’s actually happening in Peel.
Instead, the board is contending with people who think Islamic worship should be outlawed in Canada and that Muslim Canadians should be subject to strict and ongoing legal scrutiny, and who are shouting angrily and trafficking in gross stereotypes about the dangers of creeping sharia.
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There’s value to secularism in the public school system, and well-meaning critics of the practice — ones who object to having any form of religious activity take place in schools, rather than those raising more insidious Islamophobic objections — say that Muslims can worship in their mosques or at home; they don’t need to do so in schools. This misses the point that we’re talking about schoolchildren, who actually do belong in school. The real-world alternative is either they leave school to worship or they give up part of their faith, and that’s not a choice the government gets to force on them without a good reason. And not wanting to watch Muslim kids doing the things that make them Muslim isn’t a good reason.
This is the kind of topic that tends to make even sedate people start taking in absolutes, so let’s get something straight: brashly declaring that public school boards have no business making any accommodations to religious students is simply a non-starter, and would almost certainly violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Supreme Court has said this repeatedly, including more than a decade ago in the case of Gurbaj Singh. There the court unanimously found that a Quebec school’s ban on knives was overly broad and had to allow for Singh, a Sikh, to carry his kirpan as an article of his faith, as long as it was worn under his clothes and sewn into a sheath.
That ban on knives at least had an obvious motivation in terms of the physical safety of students; it’s not clear what justification the Peel board could provide to prohibit Islamic prayer and discussion on their premises. People demanding a total ban on this kind of accommodation — and that is, expressly, the demand Peel Region is facing — are arguing for an expensive lawsuit Peel’s school board would almost certainly lose.
What Ontario law does require is that none of these accommodations be compulsory (students can’t be forced to attend) and they aren't treated like part of the curriculum — it can’t be something they’re graded on. Check and check.
So if a flat “no” won’t work, then critics need to explain how these accommodations — which amount to a half-hour students spend every Friday in an unused classroom or cafeteria — are somehow beyond the pale. And people who are uncomfortable with some precepts of Islam need to remember that’s the standard: not whether something offends us or makes us uncomfortable but whether it’s so intolerable that someone’s Charter right to reasonable accommodation should be infringed. The courts have rules about that, too.
There are reasonable questions to raise, such as whether more secular Muslim students might feel compelled by their peers to attend something they’d rather not. (This was, in fact, one of the arguments for getting rid of Christian prayers in public schools generations ago.) But anyone volunteering to be the peer pressure police at their local high school is signing up for a way bigger and scarier job than just afternoon prayer sessions.
Another reasonable question is whether this is good in principle, for any religious minority wanting to use school space for their faith. As long as these prayers are happening in school there’s going to be the temptation to have the school police them, as we’ve already seen in Peel. I don’t think this will be the last time it comes up, but then I’m not a Muslim, and they didn’t ask me.
In the meantime, the community — the Muslim students, their parents, and the school board — has settled on making some space for Friday prayers as the best available solution. It’s not a neat and tidy one. In the real world, neat and tidy solutions don’t actually fall into our laps very often. But for every reasonable question someone could raise about these Friday afternoon prayers, we should remember that the starting point is that Muslim Canadians are — correctly — asking to be treated both as Muslims and as Canadians, entitled to all the rights other Canadians get, including religious accommodations.