Turning school into a mosque victimizes minorities

Calgary, Canada - It was once commonplace in Canada for students in public schools to recite the Lord's Prayer. In fact, it was mandatory in some provinces as recently as 20 years ago.

A ruling from the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1988 helped lay the basis for the prevailing attitude in the two decades since that such overt manifestations of religion have no place in public schools.

The court ruled that mandatory daily recital of the Lord's Prayer violated the Charter's guarantee of freedom of religion.

Noting that non-Christians could opt out, the court noted that such a provision "imposes on religious minorities a compulsion to conform to the religious practices of the majority" and that it also "compels students and parents to make a religious statement."

It now seems much more obvious to us that public schools should not be officially aligned with or officially endorsing any one specific religion. Nor should public schools be pressuring parents and students to publicly declare their religious affiliations.

In Manitoba, however, recent reports indicate that the Lord's Prayer is being recited in more than 20 schools. Additionally, parents must submit forms indicating whether they want their children to pray.

Whereas this was once the norm in Canada, it's now a source of controversy - as it should be.

Here in Alberta, there is finally progress on this front in Morinville, where the Catholic schools represent the only public option.

A secular option will soon be available to parents who wish a public education for their children without the imposition of a specific religious world view.

From all of this flows the secular ideal: that religious freedom is best protected when the state is religiously neutral. This principle has taken on greater significance as Canada has become more ethnically and religiously diverse.

Yet it is precisely that diversity which is creating new challenges.

We've recently learned that for over two years, the Toronto District School Board has been permitting one of its schools to operate as a de facto mosque.

The cafeteria at Valley Park Middle School is the site of Imam-led Friday prayers. The board argues that previously students left to attend at a nearby mosque. Many returned late or didn't return at all.

Faith needs can be accommodated without introducing that faith into the school. Valley Park is hardly the only school where religious minorities are the majority, yet Valley Park is apparently alone in mosquefying its cafeteria.

One could argue, though, that prayer services in the cafeteria are much different than teacher-led prayers in the classroom. But in both instances it forces religious minorities to conform and to also publicly identify themselves as religious minorities.

The nature of these prayer services might seem a secondary point, but in this case it's worth noting. Girls are forced to sit behind boys, separated by a barrier. Young girls who are menstruating are forbidden from participating and must sit on a bench in the back.

Non-Muslims are forbidden entirely from the cafeteria during prayers.

Ontario's Education Act seems pretty clear on all of this, stating that 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."

Yet in the name of diversity, the Act is being ignored. Whereas multiculturalism was once a rationale for secularism, it has now proved to be an obstacle. And whereas the two ideals were once easily compatible for those on the politicallycorrect left, the fracture has prompted many to take sides against secularism.

Moreover, for those ostensibly tasked with defending the rights of religious minorities, the perks of majority status seem awfully tempting.

With the commendable exception of the Muslim Canadian Congress, Canada's major Islamic groups have all lined up to endorse the practice.

How might these groups feel about a Muslim family living in Morinville forced to send their children to a Catholic school? Or a Muslim student in Manitoba forced to stand quietly while his classmates recite the Lord's Prayer?

For those who might otherwise support secularism they need to realize that by once again opening public schools to religion they are ultimately doing religious minorities a major disservice.