Toronto's public schools have been accommodating Muslim students' requests for time and space to pray, during the school day, on school property. At one school, on Fridays at one p.m., 300 Grade 7 and 8 students join an imam for prayer for 30 to 40 minutes. Muslim girls who wish to be part of the prayer sit at the back of the room.
There is something troubling about this, especially in the acceptance of a diminished or secondary or simply different role for girls and women in an event facilitated by the school. This is different from permitting girls to wear clothing such as a niqab that mark them, in the eyes of some, as inferior to boys. An individual's right to free expression in clothing needs no facilitation from the school. Schools should not, though, be handing out face-veils to Muslim girls.
Once a school allows such differentiated prayer roles on its property during the school day, it is not the same school any more. Its values are not the same. A public school's value statement might be: Within these walls, between 8:30 and 3:30, girls may do anything boys can do and boys may do anything girls can do. This is a protected zone for equality. Public schools need to safeguard their essential universalism in which no hierarchy exists, and no privilege is owed to one and not another.
Consider some reasonable accommodations in Toronto schools, and how they differ from facilitating public prayer. In schools with large Jewish populations, there might be no tests on Jewish holidays. Muslim children who are fasting for religious reasons may be excused from gym class; Muslim girls may be excused from swimming, or sex education. Sikh boys may wear kirpans if they are sheathed and sewn shut, despite a ban on knives. All these accommodations respect differences and thus enhance equality, rather than diminish it. They do not alter the universalism of the public schools.
The 300 students who pray in the cafeteria actually have a nearby mosque they could pray at, and letting them do so during the school day would be a reasonable accommodation. The problem arises, the school board says, that some do not return when the prayer session is over. So the issue, then, is not really accommodation of belief; instead, the school is accommodating the young people's reluctance to return.
Religious groups are free, in a democratic society, to challenge dominant ideas of equality, but the schools should not allot them space, on school time, to do so.