A Toronto public school that held Muslim religious services every Friday in the school’s cafeteria deserves some credit for trying to accommodate the secular character of Canadian public schools. Their recent decision to have students lead the prayers means the school no longer needs to host an imam once a week.
However, the attempted compromise fails to resolve concerns about the appropriateness of congregational prayer during school hours on school property, and the need to respect the principles of gender equality and inclusivity in public spaces, while also accommodating students’ faith requirements.
Students at Valley Park Middle School are mainly Muslim, and used to attend Friday prayers at a nearby mosque. Some were failing to return to school, and others were disrupting fellow students when they did return. The school decided to allow the students to use the cafeteria for 30 minutes to pray in congregation. At the most recent meeting, there were about 300 students, led by three older male students, from a nearby high school.
Muslim girls who wish to take part must sit behind the boys, while girls who are menstruating must sit at the very back. While this is the custom at Friday prayers in mosques, the segregation of girls in a public space violates gender-equality norms that are at the heart of Canada’s institutions. Why shouldn’t girls be up front and centre? And why should classmates know when young girls of 13 are menstruating?
“At the time, this seemed to be an accommodation that worked best for everyone, and nobody from the community complained for three years,” explained Jim Spyropoulos, a superintendant. with the school board. “The prayer is not conducted under the auspices of the Toronto District School Board, so we don’t tell people how to practise their faith.”
There is, however, another option: students could pray in the mosque itself, which is walking distance away. If the school is concerned about absenteeism, then it should express this to parents and the student body, and work to resolve the problem. Reasonable accommodation is an evolving matter. Segregating genders so that students can pray in a school cafeteria is not the best solution – and certainly not the school’s only option.