“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven…………..”    (John Milton – Paradise Lost)

Over the last few years, religious accommodation in Canadian schools has been a subject of much controversy. Parents, schools and residents have argued about the role of religion in our public school system, with each side weighing in strong personal and legal opinions. Earlier this year, The Peel District School Board allowed Muslim students to offer Friday prayers in the school, with some restrictions. Muslim students see these restrictions as a breach of their fundamental freedom of religion, while others see the accommodation as a “genuflection to one community and a slap in the face of all other Canadians ”. Clearly, these are some serious and strong words and a reflection of the societal rift that the accommodation of religious practices in the public school system is causing.

A quick look at the recent timeline of some events on this reveals a disturbing trend:

  • In 2011, several faith-based groups protested outside the Toronto District School Board over allowing Muslim students to pray in a Toronto school with an Imam from a local mosque presiding over. They called it discriminatory, disruptive and went as far as calling it “Islamification of society”. Interestingly it was faith-based groups that called for a complete elimination of religion from the public school system.
  • In 2015, mainly conservative Muslims from south Asia and Middle East staged a strike at Thorncliffe Park Secondary School against Ontario’s sex education curriculum as they felt it was strongly against their religious and cultural beliefs. As a result, hundreds of schoolchildren were pulled out of class to protest with them. In the same year, a Calgary school was slapped with a $26,000 fine for refusing to let Muslim students pray on campus
  • In 2016, a mother in Port Alberni petitioned the Supreme Court, objecting to her children participating in an indigenous cleansing ceremony at school, citing religious freedom.

And now the Peel Board. These are a few events that highlight a divisive public discourse that threatens to fundamentally alter Canadian society.

Last September marked 28 years since a group of Sudbury parents had the Lord ’s Prayer removed from Ontario public schools. Back in 1988, it created a lot of controversy as many at the time considered religion to be an inseparable part of public life. While the debate over separation of religion and state still goes, Canadian schools have, over time, removed almost all references to Christian prayers and symbols, a remarkable achievement since Canada has remained predominantly Christian. Yet, during the same time, accommodation for other minority religions has gained traction in the school system, a well-intentioned, but convoluted policy that can be disastrous for the multicultural fabric of Canadian society.

Canada is a mosaic of cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, where people of all faiths enjoy religious freedom guaranteed by The Charter of Rights and Freedoms. With multiculturalism and religious freedom, however, comes the challenge of a more pragmatic definition, interpretation and policy regarding religious accommodation and its place in Canadian society, and schools in particular. Religion is an integral part of human history and continues to play a significant role in defining the moral and spiritual code for a large number of people. Every religion has some great positives but, without trivializing any religion, one can easily argue that many beliefs across religions are incompatible, and sometimes in glaring conflict with Canada’s commitment to liberal-democratic principles of fairness and equality, and, quite frankly, even scientific thinking. Canadian law gives people the freedom to practice their faiths, and society and businesses in general are polite and accommodating towards religious sensitivities. However, it is imperative that religion stays in the personal domain and our policies do not make any exclusion for it in our public education system. Any exemption that privileges religious beliefs, has the potential of fomenting intolerance, segregation and confusion, and will ultimately be untenable. There is no intelligently coherent rationale to accommodate religion in the public sphere beyond what would be considered reasonable and in line with Canadian laws.

Regardless of the moral, political or spiritual positions we may take, history shows that the introduction and recognition of religion in public life creates discontent and, eventually,  strife. Religious accommodation in the education system, in particular, presents a complex problem with unintended outcomes such as a glaring conflict with Canadian values, potential of fomenting intolerance, unfairness to those who are not religious and finally there is the question of its place in a public school system.

Conflict with Canadian values & laws

The question of what Canadian values are and what moral, political or spiritual positions we collectively take – has been a vexed one, largely because of the multicultural composition of our society. Most Canadians, however, agree that between the paradoxical extremes of unity and plurality, we are a cohesive society with deep diversity and believe in values of freedom, equality, tolerance and mutual respect.

Our inclusive education system not only transfers knowledge to children, but also helps them navigate social interactions with peers from different ethnic, cultural and sexual identities. It is therefore the cornerstone of creating a tolerant, creative and sustainable society.  Unfortunately, there are several religious beliefs that do not encourage this. For example, there are religious beliefs that do not provide equal status to women or see alternate sexuality as a sin and therefore, a child subjected to contradicting messages from the school system and religion is bound to come out confused or with a different value system. Religious beliefs also sometimes come in the way of scientific understanding, such as the rejection of reason and evidence in embracing creationism, a myth debunked by scientific evidence that is taught in the science curriculum. What does it mean for our future if a significant portion of our students reject facts and accept a fable? Some religions also teach an abhorrence of artistic pursuits such as music and painting. Recently, a Toronto father pulled his three young children out of music class because it was against his Muslim faith, and asked for an exemption for them under the religious freedom laws. While this sparked a public debate, the reality is that an exemption in this case would have communicated that the system recognizes that we are inherently incapable of living and learning together and it is OK for our religious beliefs to prevent us from educational and artistic assimilation. That’s a very strong and dangerous message.

Despite its limitations, modern education seeks to encourage creativity, analytical & critical thinking and scientific inquiry, and the results are there for all to see. On the contrary, many religions discourage free thought and prefer complete and unquestionable subjugation, generally through devotional memorization and parroting of religious passages from scriptures. There are beliefs such as those that advocate polygamy and preach against vaccinations for example. Not only are these beliefs against Canadian law, but also can put children’s lives at risk. There is also the question of conflicting messages from various religions and each’s assertion of spiritual and moral superiority, which can lead to isolation, discrimination and conflict between students. This is a sharp contrast to the inclusive nature of public education that teaches acceptance of all faiths and identities. Therefore, by allowing religious practice or exemptions in school, the system unintentionally approves the contrasting messages and the dichotomous stream of learning.

Unfair to others

The public school system has a universal set of rules that provide for equal opportunities and choices from which students are free to choose depending on their preferences. In contrast, having different rules for different students in the same system is plainly unfair and unequal. So when a student is exempt from an arts credit in high school because it conflicts with his or her religious beliefs, it is grossly unfair on other students who have to work hard throughout the academic year to get the credit, without which they cannot get their diploma. Teachers cannot schedule exams, labs or new concepts on Fridays because some students might be off to prayers, unfairly leaving the other students basically twiddling their thumbs while the others return. This will only get worse and more complicated as the school system gets overwhelmed with potential religious accommodation requests from Canada’s more than a dozen religions, who may feel that it is unfair for the system to only accommodate a particular group’s request. Hindus, for example, may ask for a prayer room on Tuesdays and Thursdays per their beliefs, and their prayers are often accompanied by blowing conch shells and loud ringing of bells, something that schools may not be able to deal with. On one hand in a predominantly Christian country, Christian expressions, symbols and prayers in public schools have been removed while on the other the system is forced to make room for other religions. How fair is that? If Christianity isn’t acceptable in public schools then no religion should be allowed either. Not Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism or any other.

Often religious guidelines are strict and followers reject everything that even remotely represents anything forbidden by their religion. The question is not of the difference in faiths, but the ironic divide accommodations create. Muslims do not eat pork for example and it should be a matter of personal choice for them not to eat it. When schools completely ban all pork products to accommodate them, it becomes unfair on all the other students who relish it or for whom it is part of a regular diet. The same applies to beef or kosher products for Hindus and Jews respectively. This creates a subconscious divide and resentment among students. The explicit inequality created by religious exemptions is far more harmful than the unintentional inequality caused by the regular school system. Students coming out of the school system may thus choose a primarily religious identity rather than a Canadian one. As an example, when a Muslim MP won his election from Mississauga, it was hailed as a victory for Islam, a blatant disregard and disrespect for everyone who voted for him, and ironically to the democratic office that he had won. We need to be Canadians first and then everything else we choose to be.

If children come out of the school system with an overriding sense of religious identity rather than a Canadian one, it is a failure of our collective societal values. No one wants to see students of different faiths spending more time in religious pursuits and discourse rather than learning things that bind them together with the threads of tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect. A wider and a deeper interest in other faiths and in comparative religion is a significant developments of modern education and should be encouraged in school. But we cannot compete with other global economies if our children are focused on religious discourse rather than math, science, arts and sports. Granting religious believers exclusions and exemptions from school policies, methods & curricula with which they disagree defeats our commitment to fairness and equality. Children are free to learn their religion and ethnic identity at home and the school system has a fundamental obligation to treat everyone equally.

Where should we go from here?

The prime arguments used by religious groups that seek accommodation in the public school system are the freedom of religion law and the public funding of catholic schools.

As far as religious freedom goes, the laws need to explicitly define the realm of religious freedom. While all religions should be treated equally and fairly, religion should remain a matter of personal domain and no exemptions or accommodations should be allowed in any public educational institution. Students should be free to wear whatever they want, eat and believe whatever they want and practice whatever religion they want, but in no way should that mean a systemic accommodation. If students want religious education, they have the freedom to go to a church, mosque, synagogue or temple, and even their own home, but schools should remain non-religious institutions. This would not be a ruling against people of faith, but simply a rule that keeps Canadian society and values equitable and above everything else.

Along with this, however, inevitably comes the argument of the public funding of Catholic schools. Many argue that the sponsorship of one religion by the state is a breach of its duty of neutrality and amounts to discrimination against all other religions. Therefore, a ruling to remove any religious accommodation in schools cannot be enforced (nor would it likely be legal) as long as Catholic schools will remain publicly funded. This is an anachronism waiting to be ended by a courageous piece of legislature. There would likely be substantial resistance to this, considering Canada is still predominantly catholic, and politicians would perhaps find it politically expedient to let the status quo remain. However, if John Tory’s election defeat in 2007 is any indication, people may well be in favour of this. Catholic schools would have a choice to either remain funded but remove their religious curriculum, or come up with their own funding. It would be rather unfortunate to see the Catholic system, which has a long history in Canada, getting the axe, but this would surely send a strong message to all those who seek to convolute public education with religion.

All students should learn “about” religions and their place in human history and society, to the extent that it teaches them acceptance, equality and respect, but in a public school system religious accommodations should never be made. Keep religion out of Canadian schools.