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Elliot Leven


By Elliot Leven, December 14, 2011

A controversy has arisen about a Toronto public school with a student body that is about 80% Muslim. For three years, Muslim students at Valley Park Middle School have been praying in the school cafeteria at lunch hour on Friday (the Muslim Sabbath). The school has no role in organizing the service; it merely makes the cafeteria available. The practice began to prevent students from missing classes after leaving the school to pray at a nearby mosque.

Originally, an imam (Muslim cleric) led the prayers, More recently, Muslim high school students have led the service.

The prayer service has used the traditional Muslim practice of having men in the front, women behind the men, and menstruating women at the very back.
Recently, some non-Muslim groups began to protest against the practice. Some feminists have objected to the subordinate role of women in the service. The school defends its practice by citing its duty to accommodate religious needs under human rights law.
The Valley Park controversy raises complex issues, with no easy answers. On one hand, under human rights law, schools do have a duty to provide reasonable accommodation for the religious needs of students. In most if not all Canadian schools, such accommodation is routine and non-controversial. For example, students who are required to miss tests because of religious holy days, are routinely allowed to make up the tests upon their return to school. 
Most Manitoba school divisions now allow their employees up to three days of paid religious holy leave every school year. Manitoba Jewish teachers often use this leave on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
If a small number of Muslim students had been allowed to use a small room at Valley Park, in order to say their own prayers, it is likely that no one would have noticed or objected.
What makes Valley Park controversial is the fact that a Muslim prayer service is actually being held on school premises at a public school, for most of the student body. Also, it is a traditional Muslim service, with a subordinate location for females.
Canadian human rights laws do not explicitly refer to the “separation of church and state” but that separation is implied. Canada has no state religion. Therefore, Canadian governments (including public school boards) must not favor one religion over others.
Many traditional religions (including, let’s face it, Orthodox Judaism) treat women as inferior to men. Modern Canadian society does not tolerate sexism. Until now, we have reconciled these irreconcilable facts by taking the position that the state will not involve itself in matters of religious dogma. If some churches, mosques and synagogues want to give women an inferior role in worship services, the state will not interfere. 
A similar approach has worked well so far for homosexuality and religion. Human rights laws now prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. However, if some religions (including, let’s face it, Orthodox Judaism), want to cling to archaic dogmas that homosexuality is a sin, the state won’t interfere.
If the mosque near Valley Park wanted to seat men in front of women, with menstruating women at the back, and if almost all Valley Park students had decided to attend services at this mosque, there could be no valid objection.
In my opinion, the problem is that the services are being held in the school itself. It doesn’t matter if most of the students are content with this arrangement. The problem is that one specific religion is using a public school for its services.
(I would like to take the Valley Park girls aside one by one and ask each one in strict confidence whether they would prefer a Muslim prayer service in which males and females sat together or alternated between front and rear locations. I think their answers would be fascinating. But I digress.)
I realize that the school is simply trying to be pragmatic. It is easier for students to remain in their school building than to walk to the nearby mosque. They are also less likely to skip classes after prayers are over.
I also realize that, particularly since 2001, North American Muslims have been the victims of considerable discrimination and bigotry. As a result of this sad reality, our society must be very careful not to let anti-Muslim prejudices bias our views towards Valley Park or other schools with large Muslim student bodies.

However, after weighing all of these considerations in the balance, I would feel more comfortable if Valley Park ended the services on school premises. If students want to walk to the nearby mosque, the school should accommodate that practice. But at least, the males-in-the-front prayer service would not be on the premises of a public school.


Editor's note: The Winnipeg Jewish Review asked others to give their views on the issue of Muslim prayer at public schools
Alan Levy, Assoc. Prof. at Brandan University who teaches courses on diversity says:" Public schools should be secular,although Muslim students should be allowed freedom to pray elsewhere (off- site) each day if they wish."

David Matas, Senior  legal counsel for B'nai Brith  says: " B'nai has not developed a position on this specific issue.

"My own view is that the touchstone should be the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Canada is a party. That Convention provides that in any action concerning children, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration. That Convention also provides that states parties shall respect the rights of parents to provide direction to the child in the excercise of his or her right to freedom of religion. Where the two conflict, the best interests of the child and the rights of the parents to direct the child in the name of freedom of religion, then, as the Convention states, the best interests of the chld must be the primary consideration. While I recognize that removing children from music and co-ed physical education is the expression of a right to freedom of religion, in my view, this removal would not be done in the best interests of the children involved. So the schools should not allow it to happen"


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