From The Record.com
Dedicated prayer rooms may be part of new approach by province’s schools
- By Liz Monteiro, Record staff
- Sat Jan 29 2011
WATERLOO REGION — Walk through the wooden door into the secluded, carpeted room with holy books and prayer mats, and it’s hard to believe you’re in a school.
But this is the beginning of a new phase for public and Catholic schools where prayer rooms could become commonplace.
Under a provincewide policy, school boards must be more inclusive and accommodate different faiths during the school day.
This could mean a private place for Muslim students who pray five times a day and for students who are fasting, a modified gym class and a separate room for them so they don’t have to watch their peers eat lunch.
Atieh Noori, a 27-year-old Muslim student at St. Louis Adult Learning and Continuing Education Centre in downtown Kitchener, uses the prayer room each day at lunchtime to say her midday prayers.
After school, Noori doesn’t have time for prayer so she appreciates the space.
“It’s quiet and there is light and no one comes here to bother me,” said the Afghan-born Noori, who came to Canada in 2007 via Iran.
At St. Louis, the prayer room was set up about eight years ago to accommodate many of the English-as-a-second-language students who attend the school.
The newly adopted faith and accommodation policy states that each student has a right to follow his or her beliefs free from discrimination or harassment. Areas of reasonable accommodation include observance of major religious holy days and celebrations, prayers and rituals, dietary requirements and fasting, religious attire and participation in school curriculum and extracurricular activities.
“Someone’s faith is part of who they are. Accommodating them brings understanding and shows we respect them,” said public school trustee Cindy Watson.
Prayer rooms in area schools are rare. If Muslim students request a place to pray, they are often sent to the vice-principal’s office or given an empty classroom. And even requests are rare, say some secondary school principals.
At Catholic high schools, silent prayer is allowed in the school chapel, but Muslim students saying their prayers are prohibited from the chapel, said Jonathan Wright, a religious family life and equity consultant with the board.
An edict by Canadian bishops says only Catholic prayer is allowed in the presence of the Eucharist, Wright said.
Accommodating faith can be a delicate issue, particularly in a secular public school system. Some critics of the policy feel if the Lord’s Prayer isn’t recited in schools then why should other faiths be acknowledged?
Public school superintendent Peter Rubenschuh said a policy ensures standards are followed and everyone is treated fairly.
“Parents and students want to be heard and respected,” he said. “They want to feel validated and honoured.”
Rubenschuh said finding an appropriate space for students to pray does not mean putting them “in the mud room,” but finding a private space while at the same time supervising them.
Faith leaders say there is a clear distinction between accommodating a religion and proselytizing in the classroom.
“You can’t tell a Muslim student not to fast,” said Waterloo mother Idrisa Pandit. “They are not asking other people to pray with them.”
Interfaith Grand River, a coalition of local faith groups, doesn’t support pushing a religion on anyone. During the recent Gideon Bible controversy in which the public school board went ahead with its decades-long policy of distributing bibles to Grade 5 students, members of the group told trustees that no religious text should be distributed in classrooms.
“Religious accommodation is providing an inclusive environment for people of all faiths or no faith, not granting primacy to any one faith or belief,’’ said Pandit, a member of Interfaith Grand River.
“To confuse or equate accommodation with allowing various religious groups to distribute religious texts to public school children, especially if they contain an open invitation to proselytize, is wrong,” she said.
Imam Shafiq Hudda of the Islamic Humanitarian Service Centre in Kitchener, and also a member of Interfaith Grand River, said he’s pleased to see school boards accommodating students of all faiths in a secular system.
It doesn’t mean the faith that is being accommodated is “being rammed down people’s throats,” said Hudda.
When he attended Cameron Heights Collegiate as a student, Hudda said he prayed in the health room and was always treated fairly by teachers who offered him the space.
Hudda’s 14-year-old son, Minhaal, a Grade 9 student at Huron Heights Secondary School in Kitchener, prays three times a day although his faith tells followers to pray five times daily.
Minhaal prefers to pray two prayers when he gets home from school to compensate for his midday prayer.
During Ramadan, an Islamic month of fasting which last year ended in early September, Minhaal said his physical education teacher asked him if he was OK during the football drills.
“Sometimes it was difficult because I couldn’t drink, but we were outdoors and I was OK,’’ said Minhaal. “The teachers were really nice.’’
Local Catholic high schools also welcome students of various faith backgrounds. Open access means any student within the school boundary can attend a Catholic high school regardless of their faith.
More Muslim parents are choosing Catholic high schools as an alternative for their children.
“It’s not a tradition they were raised in, but they like the sense of the sacred and something larger than them,” said Joan Grundy, vice-principal at St. Mary’s High School.
Grundy said St. Mary’s has not received any request from Muslim students wanting an alternative prayer room.
At Ryerson Public School in Cambridge where the nearly half of the school population of 400 students are of Muslim or Sikh background, staff there have been accommodating students long before the policy was created.
During Ramadan, some students asked to go to another room during lunch so they didn’t have to watch their peers eat as they fasted, said principal Peter Berndt.
“When you create a policy, it already reflects what you are doing,” he said.
“We are a learning environment and we maximize the learning opportunity we have in an easy and casual way,” Berndt said.