A mix of policy for religion in schools

Toronto, Ontario - Some school boards in Canada ban prayer outright, while others bend over backwards to accommodate it, according to educational administrators.

Board officials from St. John’s to Edmonton compared their religious policies on Wednesday with those of a North York public school, where revelations of Friday prayer sessions sparked controversy earlier this month.

“We don’t have prayer as part of the day.” said Mary Tucker, communications manager for the Eastern School District, which encompasses St. John’s, N.L. “There’s no prayer in our schools.”

A referendum in 1997 turned the multi-denominational educational system in Newfoundland and Labrador into a single, secular system overnight — a far cry from the situation in Edmonton.

“We have a Hebrew bilingual program, we have Christian programs, Arabic bilingual programs,” said Cheryl Oxford, communications director for the Edmonton Public School Board. “We’re one of the most unique school boards in the country that has integrated faith-based and several language and culture elements into our schools.”

Institutions like the Talmud Torah School, Edmonton Christian Schools and Amiskwaciy Academy all fall under the umbrella of Edmonton’s public board and are funded by taxpayers.

“Before school starts at Amiskwaciy, they gather in their lobby and they do a blessing for the day in the Aboriginal culture way, with smudging and with an elder,” Oxford said.

Jewish, Christian, Aboriginal and Arabic programs at Edmonton’s “secular” public schools include religious teachings and prayer sessions, hosted in their gyms during instructional time, she said.

Valley Park Middle School in Toronto recently generated controversy for allowing an Imam to lead prayer services in its cafeteria during class hours between November and March of last year.

And while the Toronto District School Board spelled out the need to “take reasonable steps to provide accommodation to individual members of a religious group,” the Edmonton board fully “enables schools to conduct religious exercises,” provided they do not discriminate between denominations or attempt to convert other students.

But school board representatives in Halifax, Saskatoon and Calgary say even Toronto’s within-school-hours accommodation falls out of bounds: “We will teach about religion, but not of religion,” said Calgary School Board communications manager Cathy Ward.

Up to 400 Muslim students attend the controversial North York middle school’s 30 to 40 minute-long sessions, which ban non-Islamic students and divide the students by gender, placing boys in front of girls.