It is up to school boards to decide how to accommodate the religious beliefs of their students, not politicians, Ontario's opposition critics said Wednesday.
A school in the city's north end has come under fire from a Hindu group for allowing Muslim students to hold a prayer service in its cafeteria.
It's a complaint that threatens to re-ignite the debate over religion in schools — and a dangerous topic for politicians so close to an election after the provincial Tories loss in 2007 over then-Progressive Conservative leader John Tory's stance on public funding for faith-based schools.
But Toronto District School Board spokesperson Shari Schwartz-Maltz said the current situation was not the same.
“This is not about religion in schools, it's about religious accommodation,” she said. “It's provincial only in that it's mandated by the Ontario Human Rights Code.”
Progressive Conservative critic Elizabeth Witmer said her party had no intention to bringing up religion in schools in the upcoming election, noting that this case is specific to one school board and it was up to them to sort out.
“We have indicated that we would not be bringing this (faith-based funding) forward again, we feel that the people did speak last time and our position is that this is an issue that the Toronto board needs to deal with,” she said.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath agreed, saying that schools have a duty to accommodate students' beliefs, and each board is in the best position to decide how to deal with the needs of its diverse population.
“It's a matter of the school boards and the kinds of diversity that they have within their board,” Ms. Horwath said.
“And if they have the diversity in their board and they wish to do everything they can to accommodate that diversity and make sure those children are able to maintain their faith while attending public school, then they'll find that space.”
Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky was unavailable for comment, but a spokesman noted that boards were required to accommodate religious needs under an Ontario Human Rights Code policy adopted in 1996.
The school began the prayer service after parents approached the principal about three years ago, concerned about the time their kids were taking off school to attend prayer service.
On Fridays between November and March, Muslims pray three times a day, and kids who were leaving the school to go to the mosque would often take their time coming back, said Ms. Schwartz-Maltz.
Since the school's population is between 80 and 90 per cent Muslim, it worked out a plan with parents to allow them to use the cafeteria after the lunch hour. There, they held a 30- to 40-minute prayer service for 300-400 kids with an imam, chosen and supervised by the parents.
“What everyone wanted was a chance for the kids to pray and fulfil their religious obligations, and at the same time, go back to class,” Ms. Schwartz-Maltz said.
The service is not a TDSB program or part of the curriculum, she added, and was really just designed to help with issues of safety and loss of instructional time.
The school and board had not received any complaints until now, and are not reconsidering the service.