Kids are praying in Toronto’s public schools. It’s not a school board concern, however, because the students are not Christians. And on July 8,2011, the Toronto District School Board issued an official statement that the Muslim students attending Valley Park Middle School in North York have a “constitutional right” to pray during school hours.
Toronto’s Valley Park school has become the latest lightening rod in the long simmering public debate over the place of religion in publicly-funded state schools. The school is 80% to 90% Muslim and some 400 Islamic students have been praying on Friday afternoons for 40 minutes for the past year. It started three years ago when large numbers of Valley Park students began missing Friday afternoon classes to attend a nearby mosque. The school principal Nick Stefanoff, with the best of intentions, devised a solution: an in-school service, offered for free by a local imam and supervised by parents.
All was quiet until Hindu parents raised an objection, complaining that such services carried the potential for “inflammatory preaching.” Even though there is no evidence of such activity, the issue hit The Toronto Sun and News Talk Radio — and sparked a firestorm of controversy. http://www.torontosun.com/2011/07/04/prayers-in-school-whats-the-problem
The Canadian Hindu Advocacy group, led by Ron Bannerjee, feared the worst and charged that it opened the door to other groups demanding the same “privilege” as the Muslims. “Pretty soon,” Bannerjee stated, “we’re going to have 50 different ethnicities and religions asking for different accommodations.” National Post columnist Kelly McParland countered with an op ed defending the “entirely reasonable and workable solution” to “satisfy a few people who can’t stand the idea of Muslim kids praying in the cafeteria.” http://www.ottawacitizen.com/story_print.html?id=5062024&sponsor=
The raging public issue goes far beyond a dispute between religious faiths. A Christian god has now been essentially banned from all public schools, except for Catholic separate schools in a few provinces. Most public schools have become increasingly godless places since the late 1960s and high school officials show more tolerance for “sex, drugs, and rap music” than any form of religious faith.
A recent National Post editorial (July 7, 2011) connected the dots for us. “Enforced secularization -and the uproar caused when religion rears its controversial head -are a direct result of another problem with the public education system: absence of choice.” http://www.nationalpost.com/news/Have+faith+choice/5062048/story.html
How did public education become the modern temple of secular humanism? The Canadian courts played a critical role, supporting a “non-sectarian” interpretation of provincial public school law and regulations. With the tacit support of most politicians, the courts decided that the only “fair” option was to remove all religion from the taxpayer-funded, ‘one-size-fits-all school’ system.
Twenty years ago, Canadian courts ruled that the Lord’s Prayer could not be said in public schools because it constituted religious indoctrination, and children who refused to say it would be stigmatized. Since then, there have been continuous efforts, in the National Post’s words, ” to scrub every vestige of religion -Christmas trees, Nativity scenes, Easter celebrations -from public schools.” In once Catholic Quebec, the government has even outlawed the use of religious symbolism or stories in state-funded day cares.
For schools such as Valley Park Middle School, the banning of prayers seriously compromises the school’s ability to adapt to the circumstances and needs of the vast majority of their students. Parents there who would want their children to pray in school would have no choice but to send them to private school to regain their religious freedom. This excludes a large number of families who simply cannot afford the fees for such institutions.
The real solution to the current Prayer in School conflict is to introduce school choice, allowing parents and families to choose schools that “fit the children” rather than the other way around. Broadening the range of school choices, especially in Toronto’s multicultural communities, would ensure that schools were putting the needs of children and families first. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/toronto/school-prayer-debate-creates-unlikely-allies/article2092121/
Fears of religion in the schools are grossly exaggerated by those who have a stake in resisting school reform. Defenders of the educational status quo will eventually come to accept that the will of the public for more choice can no longer be thwarted by furious public appeals for “one system for all.” Public education based upon parental choice principles, whether through funded alternatives or tuition fee-subsidies, would allow parents to send their children to any school that meets basic educational credentials.
Letting Muslims pray in school makes good sense in Toronto’s Thorncliffe Park. Today’s school systems claim to be open, liberal, and tolerant of individual rights and cultural differences. We currently offer social justice courses in Native/Mi’Kmaq Studies and Afri-Canadian Studies, so the system can flex when the option is considered politically acceptable. So what’s the problem? Above and beyond basic curricula, schools should also be free to include other elements of their community’s choosing, including faith-based lessons and discussions that were once the hallmark of a true liberal education.
What’s the real problem with prayers in public school? How did Canada’s public schools become temples of secular humanism and purveyors of ” good enough for all”? Why did it take Canada’s newcomers to awaken us to the “godless” nature of many state-funded school institutions? Is broadening school choice in public education the ultimate answer?