Prayer space in Canadian public schools a mistake

Canada has had publicly supported religious schools since its founding. But the open practice of religion in public schools has been frowned on by Canadian courts since the mid-1980s. (Above, St. Phillips Elementary Catholic School in Ontario) [Photo by Amir Syed, Creative Commons]

By Tom Regan

One of the best things about public school in the United States is that religion is left “at the school house gate,” to borrow a phrase from a famous Supreme Court ruling on a different issue.

It’s not quite the same in Canada. There is no “separation of church and state” in Canadian law. Religious schools, in particular publicly supported Catholic schools, have operated in Canada since the country’s founding in 1867. For instance, the province of Ontario supports a Catholic school system. I know because I once attended Corpus Christi school in Ottawa. Right across the street was Mutchmor school, the ”Protestant” school, but basically it was for everyone who wasn’t Catholic. They would call us “Corpus Crispies” and we would chant back they were “Mutch Less.” Such is the nature of how religion brings us together.

There is also public financial support in some form across the country for other religious schools, including Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Sikh.

Canada public schools, however, are like those in the US and openly practicing religion during the school day is frowned upon. At least that what courts in Canada have been saying since the mid-1980s, when the courts ruled that schools cannot conduct religious exercises that favor one denomination. Even voluntary exercises were found to be unconstitutional, as “opting out” can create a stigma for the student who opts out.

It is constitutional to wear expressions of your faith in a public school: a yarmulke if you’re Jewish, a hijab if you’re Muslim, a cross if you’re Catholic. And that is as it should be.

But what about putting aside a space for a group of students so that they can pray during the school day? That’s the question after a school in Brampton, Ontario put aside space for Muslims students to pray on Fridays. This is not the first time this has arisen as a potential issue – in 2012 a public school in Toronto allowed a Muslim Imam to come and talk to students at lunchtime on Fridays.

Both situations are a mistake. If schools are prohibited from holding opt-out religious exercises, then opt-in is also a problem, potentially for the very same reason.

To quote Ed Morgan, a University of Toronto constitutional law expert, who was interviewed about the 2012 conflict, “I think this looks like a school practicing religion. The school may be conveying a message that they endorse religion and that’s what the school is not allowed to do.”

And that’s the way it must be, regardless of the religion. While the Canadian approach to religion in public schools is certainly more open than in the US, this is a road the country does not want to go down. What happens when every religious denomination starts to ask for “accommodation”? Many schools currently refuse to allow parents to pull their children from a class every time something they find questionable is taught – which is as it should be. It’s going to be a lot harder to argue in favor of this rule if you’re giving students from any religion a room to pray in during public school times.

There are numerous publicly supported religious options for school in Canada, where open expressions of religion are welcome. Or before or after school, fine. But the minute the public school day starts, then it’s time for religion to leave.

It’s a particularly hard time for Canadians Muslims. The recent murder of six Muslims in Quebec City and the very public race-baiting tactics of Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch have exacerbated fears in the community. But this is a question that not only affects Muslims, but all Canadians. And if Canada is going to make sure that there is a level-playing field for all people of faith in public schools, then open practices of faith are going to have to be left at that school house gate.

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