by John Goddard
The educational director of Canada’s sixth largest city has decided to allow Muslim students in public schools to give Friday prayer sermons without prior screening of the sermon’s content.
The policy is a reversal of current policy, which was implemented after a number of student-written sermons proved problematic.
In addition, the education director is allowing Muslim students to gather in groups for daily prayers in the schools. At school prayer services, mosque rules apply, meaning genders are segregated and menstruating girls are permitted to watch but not participate.
The ruling applies to public schools in Mississauga (a city adjoining Toronto).
The precedent-setting policy was explained by Education Director Tony Pontes. “The board has always been committed to an inclusive approach in all activities related to religious accommodation,” he said to the Peel District School Board.
The ruling follows four months of lobbying by Muslim student activists, Muslim parents and imams.
To help with the final wording of the new policy, Pontes says he will consult leaders of the National Council of Canadian Muslims (the Canadian branch of CAIR), a group characterized by the spokesperson for the previous Canadian government as “an organization with documented ties to a terrorist organization such as Hamas.”
(The council is suing the spokesperson for that characterization.)
Few voices opposing expanded prayer privileges have been heard. One exception came when anti-Islamist protester Sandra Solomon, an ex-Muslim Palestinian born in Ramallah and raised in Saudi Arabia, disrupted a school board meeting shouting, “I ran away from sharia law, they wanted to kill me. Canadian law, not sharia law!”
Police escorted her from the building.
In his ruling, Pontes traced the evolution of Muslim religious activities in Peel District schools as follows:
In 2012, the board approved private, individual prayer for Muslim students and no group prayers.
In 2015, the administration discovered that some schools were allowing congregational prayers on Fridays, with students delivering their own sermons. Pontes sought advice.
Lawyers familiar with the Ontario Education Act and the Ontario Human Rights Code recommended continued individual prayer, not group prayer. Six local imams advocated Friday congregational prayer with student-led sermons.
Pontes sided with the imams.
In June 2016, he instituted Friday prayer in all elementary, middle and high schools requesting services, for Grades 6 to 12. But he also stipulated that the six imams would write the sermons, because student sermons had proved to be a problem. “(There were) a few situations where staff had to intervene,” board spokesperson Ryan Reyes said.
After the student sermons were banned, activists protested, calling the policy “discrimination,” “Islamophobia,” and “colonialism,” and in appearances before the school board demanded — for the first time — group daily prayers.
“This policy eradicates the ability for students to take initiative,” said Hamza Azis, Muslim Student Association president at John Fraser Secondary School.
“The board should not be policing religion,” said Shahmir Durrani, the campaign’s overall coordinator, a University of Toronto student and leader of the Muslim Student Federation.
“In 1885, the Canadian government… banned a number of Aboriginal ceremonies,” said Maleeha Baig, another University of Toronto student and head of a group called the High School Muslim Students Association. Sermon reviews have “colonial implications,” she said.
Last month, upon her reelection as board chair, Janet McDougald said equity and inclusion remain her highest priorities. “It is the most important work an elected board can do,” she said, “and our community and history will judge us on the measure of our continuous progress.”
In November, McDougald and Pontes convened a closed meeting with Muslim students, parents and imams to hear more. When a Hindu parent asked later why the November meeting was closed, McDougald countered, “It was not a closed meeting — it was a public meeting by invitation.”
Pontes said the final wording of his ruling will include the following elements:
John Goddard is an independent newspaper and magazine reporter living in Toronto.