Muslim students seeking damages

A group of Muslim students is seeking more than $1-million in damages from a major engineering school in Montreal in a tense dispute over the university's refusal to grant the students space for their prayers.

The estimated 300 Muslim students at Montreal's École de technologie supérieure the sixth-largest engineering school in Canada have been left to pray in the school's fire-escape stairwell.

The students are also upset that the school has posted signs in its bathrooms forbidding students to wash their feet in the sinks. The signs feature a picture of feet in a sink, with a red line running through them.

University administrators said they received complaints about the foot-washing, which is required before Muslim prayers, because water spilled on the counters and floors made them dangerous.

But the Muslim students maintain that the prohibition fits into a larger atmosphere of intolerance on campus, and they have filed a complaint with the Quebec Human Rights Commission seeking $10,000 each in punitive and moral damages for more than 100 Muslims at the school.

"We're not trying to spread Islam. We just want to practise our religion," said Farid Ghanem, a doctoral student who left the engineering school last month because of its treatment of Muslims. "The atmosphere has become intolerable. There are tensions every day."

The clash goes to the heart of Quebec's efforts to take its schools out of the grip of religion, which had dominated the province for decades.

Both sides at the engineering school say they are prepared to legally defend their viewpoint as far as it takes. A top university administrator said his institution, which has 4,500 students and is affiliated with the University of Quebec, will go to the Supreme Court to ensure its right to remain secular.

"We feel it's not the mission of the university to create mini-temples in the school," said Normand Trudel, secretary-general of the school.

"We have nothing against Muslims. We treat Jews, Catholics and Jehovah's Witnesses the same way. People [at school] would prefer that there be no manifestation of religion of any kind. We don't want the school to turn into a place of worship."

He said a Catholic student group requested prayer space a few years ago and was turned down. The dozens of student associations that are funded by the university all have activities linked to the mission of the school, he said.

Muslim students at the engineering school say their freedoms have diminished over time; they used to be allowed to leave their prayer carpets in the stairwell between prayers, but are now required to remove them.

Fo Niemi of the Centre for Research Action on Race Relations, a Montreal human-rights group that represents the students, said other universities such as McGill and Concordia have accommodated Muslim students with devoted space.

"You can't be secular to the point of violating the fundamental rights of religion," Mr. Niemi said. In Quebec, he said, "it's gone from one extreme to the other."