Last month, the Peel District public school board in Ontario used police to remove parents who were upset that their children’s school administration was broadening the rules for school prayer. The board ruled that the contents of Muslim Jummah, or Friday communal prayer, would no longer have to be pre-approved.
Almost 100 parents at the school board meeting expressed concerns about accommodating religious faith but the opportunity for real debate was lost when the handful of extremists yelled hateful comments.
That spectacle elicited remarks from educators and politicians, and made national headlines. Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter responded that there can be “no tolerance for discrimination of any sort.” She’s right, of course. So too is the statement from the Ontario Human Rights Commission reminding us that expressions of religious faith are a right – even if those rights are requested in a public school.
The provincial Liberal government has been vocal in this case, promoting and endorsing the need to accommodate faith practices in Ontario public schools.
But only 10 years ago, the Liberals campaigned vehemently against then-Progressive Conservative leader John Tory’s faith-based school model.
Now, Premier Kathleen Wynne’s government has suddenly changed its mind.
In 2007, Tory and Wynne duked it out in Don Valley West, a riding with the province’s highest concentration of Muslim voters. Wynne, then Ontario’s education minister, said Tory’s proposal to introduce faith in public schools would divide people rather than bring them together. She said the social costs of doing this would be too high.
Voters agreed with her. In her riding and across Ontario, the Liberals won a majority, in part thanks to their position on separating church and state in public schools.
Back then, Wynne said that allowing religion in schools would create division and hatred. Ten years later, she’s being proven right.
Several groups – some of them radical – have organized public rallies condemning any expression of faith in public schools.
Legitimate critics are also raising concerns about accommodating faith in schools. Many new Canadians escaped countries where contentious issues were deeply rooted in religious division. They don’t want to see those same divisions in Canada. Many of the protesters at that Peel school board meeting were ethnic and it’s important we listen to their experiences.
And what of the expression of Christian faith in public schools? Not long ago, Ontario public school boards dropped the Lord’s Prayer and removed crucifixes in an effort to make all students feel included. Many schools abandoned Christmas pageants and removed Christmas trees because of their links to Christianity. The message was clear: religious expression had no place in a multicultural community.
Are parents uncomfortable with expressions of faith in schools because they feel divided rather than connected? Are some faith communities upset that one faith is being favoured over another? And can we have these conversations without the interruption of a few radicals who overshadow the debate – and the politicians who use them to their advantage?
Canadians have lots of opportunities to express their faith. We are free to worship in churches, temples and mosques. Human rights laws ensure freedoms to express our faith.
But we are also a democracy and voters rejected the notion of accommodating faiths in public schools in 2007.
If Wynne wants to take the question of allowing prayers and sermons in public schools to voters again, she’s welcome to do so – at her own risk.
Maddie Di Muccio is a former town councillor in Newmarket, Ont., and former columnist with the Toronto Sun.