The Toronto District School Board says it is meeting its obligation to accommodate students' religious beliefs by allowing an imam to lead students in prayer on school property.
The board came under fire this week when a Hindu group that regularly criticizes Islam raised objections to Friday Muslim prayer sessions, which have been held inside a cafeteria at Valley Park Middle School in Flemingdon Park for about three years.
The Muslim Canadian Congress, an outspokenly liberal group, also raised concerns that the TDSB is putting the needs of Muslim students above their classmates.
"The reality of that is that the school board is being politically correct and naive," said Salma Siddiqui, the group's senior vice-president, told the Globe on Wednesday. "Honestly it does not work in the long run. How are they going to accommodate other religious minorities?"
Jim Spyropoulos, superintendent of inclusive schools for the board, said that parents and teachers at the school came up with an arrangement that would enable the more than 300 observant students at the school to attend prayer without leaving school property and missing class time.
A spokeswoman for the board said the prayers are entirely run and paid for by the Valley Park community.
"I think it's important to note the prayer isn't conducted under the auspices of the board," he said. "The principal was creative enough to sit down with parents and come up with a solution that worked for everyone and there has not been a single complaint from within the community."
Similar arrangements have been made for Muslim students at other schools throughout the board, he said.
But Ron Banerjee, director of Canadian Hindu Advocacy, said his group has received support both from Hindus and non-Hindus who say the TDSB is going too far.
Islamic groups are "imposing their view and trying to change the rules, regulations, norms and values to accommodate themselves, and in the long-term, to spread their ideology," he said.
"….Pretty soon we're going to have 50 different ethnicities and religions asking for different accommodations."
The TDSB introduced a religious accommodation policy in 2000 in order to ensure it was in compliance with human rights legislation. It outlines ways to accommodate modesty requirements in gym class, and fasting and dietary requirements, among other things. It also includes limitations that state the board won't compromise on certain issues, such as public safety or health, in making these accommodations, and that parents must make the request.
Prayer has a long history inside Canadian schools.
Since before Canada became a country, it was a common requirement for students to begin their day with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.
In 1982, when the Charter of Rights and Freedoms came into play, obligatory school prayers became a potential violation of students' rights to freedom of conscience and religion.
Prayer in schools has remained controversial in the United States where some jurisdictions have attempted to reinstate religious observances in state-sponsored classrooms.
The accommodations for students at Valley Park Middle School are very different.
They amount to allowing prayer inside a school, but don't go so far as the school-directed form of prayer that was outlawed in Canada nearly 30 years ago.
"In a school where there is such a high concentration of Muslim students, this was the best solution that avoided compromising instructional time," said Mr. Spyropoulos.