One of Canada's largest engineering schools has been told it must find a prayer space for Muslim students who have been relegated to a campus stairwell for their daily rituals.
The Quebec Human Rights Commission said yesterday that the school, affiliated with the University of Quebec, failed in its duty to accommodate Muslim students by denying them a place to pray in dignity. It has given the institution 60 days to remedy the problem.
The commission stopped short of saying the École de technologie supérieure should set aside a separate Muslim prayer room, an option found at several Canadian universities.
But Marc-André Dowd, interim president of the commission, said other universities have created multifaith or meditation rooms, among other alternatives, to meet the needs of their growing Muslim student bodies.
"The secular nature of an institution doesn't remove its obligation to accommodate students in their religious needs," Mr. Dowd said.
Yesterday's report was in response to a $1.1-million complaint filed three years ago on behalf of 113 Muslim students, who depicted an unwelcoming and even hostile atmosphere at the school of 4,800 students at the edge of downtown Montreal.
The students said they were kneeling on prayer carpets in crowded stairwells. Prayer carpets stored in a student's locker were removed by the university on the grounds that lockers had to be padlocked to prevent theft.
The school refused to grant accreditation to the Muslim Students Association because of an in-house policy excluding religious groups.
And signs posted above the sinks in school bathrooms featured a pictogram of a foot with a red line running through it. Muslims perform ritual ablutions before prayers.
The commission ruled the signs weren't discriminatory under the Quebec Charter of Rights, although Mr. Dowd questioned the university's motives for using them.
"Is a pictogram really necessary? The students know how to read. It's a university," he said.
Overall, Mr. Dowd said, both sides in the dispute showed themselves to be rigid.
A core group of Muslim students, for example, insisted on a devoted prayer space.
Yesterday's ruling was an attempt to reconcile religious freedoms with the secular nature of Quebec's public institutions. McGill University in Montreal also faces human-rights complaints from Muslim students seeking prayer space.
The commission broke new ground by stating that even the secular character of Quebec's schools, often raised as an argument to exclude some religious practices, cannot be used as a pretext to suppress religious freedoms.
The ruling was greeted with disappointment by the group acting on behalf of the 113 Muslim students.
Fo Niemi, executive director of the Montreal-based Center for Research-Action on Race Relations, said the ruling amounted to a "slap on the wrist" for the engineering school because it failed to mention the issue of damages to the students who had suffered discrimination.
Although many Muslim students involved in the original complaint have graduated, current students still resort to finding prayer space anywhere they can, Mr. Niemi noted.
University spokesman Jean Morin said the school will study the commission's report, but campus classrooms are already available for prayers all day when they're not in use.
If the university fails to comply with the commission's ruling, it could be taken before the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, which handles discrimination disputes.