Police intervened at a Toronto-area school board meeting on Wednesday evening after members in the audience shouted anti-Muslim rhetoric, tore pages from a Koran and stepped on the religious text.
The events at the Peel District School Board forced Ontario's Liberal government to issue a statement on Thursday that it supported the district's move to provide religious accommodation to its students.
At issue is the school board providing space for Muslim students to pray as a group every Friday. Critics argue a secular school system should not accommodate religion. But boards are legally required to provide religious accommodation, when it's requested. Some school boards in the Greater Toronto Area, for example, have allowed students to be exempted based on religious beliefs from classes, including music and art, but only as a last resort and after failing to reach a compromise with parents.
"We know that the Peel District School Board has been working closely with their students and the community for more than a decade on religious accommodation in their schools and we are pleased to see their commitment to inclusion," Education Minister Mitzie Hunter and Michael Coteau, minister of children and youth services, said in a statement on Thursday. "Realizing the promise of Ontario's diversity is a continuous process grounded in actively respecting and valuing the full range of our differences."
Brian Woodland, a spokesman at Peel, said about 80 people attended the board meeting Wednesday and the situation escalated quickly. He said members of the crowd immediately began shouting "fairly horrific" anti-Muslim comments.
As school trustees began to offer tributes to a retiring staff members, they were interrupted. One person in the audience stood up, tore up a copy of the Koran, and another person walked on the pages, Mr. Woodland said.
Other meetings of late have also been disruptive. Peel police were on hand, and about half-an-hour into the meeting were asked by the board's chair to clear the crowd out of the room.
Mr. Woodland said that those in the room who were critical of religious accommodation were actually opposed to accommodating the Muslim community in schools.
"They used language and comments that were the most hateful that I have ever seen in my career," Mr. Woodland said. "I was actually deeply shaken by what I heard. I'm not sure I've ever in my life seen this level of hatred."
Pardeep Khunger, a Hindu father of two children who attend schools in Peel, said he was at Wednesday's meeting as an observer but did not take part in the incident and was in no way associated with what transpired. He said he was there to listen to feedback from previous meetings.
He said he is not fully supportive of religious accommodations being made in secular schools. He said that it is disruptive to the school day and segregates students.
"Not only Peel schools but other boards who are accommodating this should focus on the education, rather than these things that are segregating the students," he said.
Mr. Woodland countered: "We are legally required. We do know the [Ontario Human Rights] Code, and we do consult with legal counsel."
He acknowledged that some parents are concerned, but the board is providing information, including the fact that all Ontario school boards are required to offer religious accommodation, and that Friday prayer does not impact student learning.
The protests in Peel have escalated after the board brought a new procedure in the fall that required Muslim students to choose from six prewritten sermons at the Jummah prayers, the communal worship in which devout Muslims participate every Friday. That meant students leading Friday prayers for their Muslim peers at their high school could use only the sermons (khutbahs) approved by the school board, instead of writing their own and using one approved by a school administrator.
After some push-back from students and community members that the decision to limit their sermons violated their right to religious freedom, the board earlier this year revised its procedure and allowed students to either to deliver their own sermons or choose from several prewritten ones approved by local imams.