Updated: Oct 25
This post was originally published online in 2017.
Canadian society faced another challenge this past month as a school district in suburban Toronto wrestled with the accommodation of Muslim prayers on Fridays even as critics called for suspension of all such religious services on school grounds.
School board trustees veered back and forth between addressing fears that student sermons would cross over into hate speech and addressing opposite fears that school authorities would presume to censor students.
A compromise solution was passed to allow students to write their own sermons, but they had to be submitted in advance to the principal, and a teacher would continue to monitor the prayer time. But the trustees have asked staff to come up with a policy that will please at least more of the unhappy people in Peel District.
Many Canadians might feel that we’re going back to the future. Didn’t we wrestle with school prayer a generation ago, and decide, from coast to coast to coast, to take it out of public schools? Are our new Muslim neighbours threatening now to turn back the clock on progressive Canada?
Yes, no, and no.
We did decide that the mandatory recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, which I remember taking place each morning of my high school career in Ontario, be removed from public schools out of respect for two basic facts: Canada is not officially a Christian country and it is improper to require pupils to participate in the rites of a religion to which they do not belong.
We did not decide that no one could pray in school, of course. The old joke remains: So long as there are final exams, there will be prayer in schools. But prayer was firmly limited to the individual student’s own practice.
In some regions of Canada, students can still form prayer groups, but even those are usually required to meet after school hours and without any official endorsement from teaching staff. The bright line must be observed: no school endorsement of (any particular) religion.
To be sure, some schools continue to be confused about that line. Some have sponsored native elders to not only teach students about indigenous culture, but to lead them in aboriginal rites.
Others have tried to make Christmastime as inclusive as possible by teaching students to sing a wide range of songs to a wide range of deities, thus compounding the problem rather than solving it. (I’ll never forget one of our sons cheerily hymning the virtues of the Chinese kitchen god one December.)
Are our Muslim neighbours, however, threatening to move us back half a century?
No. They are challenging us to go forward to new policies to accommodate new realities, even as they may prompt us to re-think a few things.
Liberal Muslims, like liberal Jews and Christians, are quite happy to simplify things for us. Religion should be strictly a matter of individual choice, so schools have no business setting aside rooms or hours or staff to accommodate prayers.
But traditional Muslims, like traditional Jews and Christians, see prayer as properly practiced both individually and corporately. Indeed, all three religions require corporate prayer.
Unlike Jews and Christians, however, the Canadian school calendar does not already accommodate their weekly day of prayer. Jews have Saturdays and Christians have Sundays, but Friday is the Muslim day. And the Jumu'ah, the main Friday prayer, happens just after noon, which is smack in the middle of the school day.
Critics want to preserve the sacred secularity of the school and make the Muslim students go to a mosque...and then come back to school. But the Peel District board has struck a more sensible balance: providing a corporate prayer space in the school will interrupt the school day as little as possible.
The basic principle is clear: If we’re going to invite people from around the world to live here, and particularly refugees from Muslim societies, we must accommodate their cultural traditions as far as we reasonably can.
If we want Muslim kids in school, we have to let them be Muslim kids in school.
Indeed, considering accommodation for Muslims gives us the opportunity to re-think what may have been an excessive swing of the cultural pendulum more generally, and correct it.
Yes, it was right to stop insisting that non-Christians recite a Christian prayer as part of school opening exercises.
No, however, it was wrong to prevent Christian (or other religious) groups from meeting in lunch hours or spare periods or after school on school property with sponsoring teachers—as if religion is the one cultural activity we must isolate from school while we encourage political, charitable, artistic, and athletic groups all we can.
The Canadian state, and public institutions such as schools and school boards, must not favour one religion over another. But they must not favour anti-religion, either.
The multicultural conversation will go on, and our Muslim neighbours are helping us have a better one.