A meeting of the Peel District School Board heard Tuesday evening that Muslim students feel stigmatized and targeted after a recent change to the board's religious accommodation policy — prompting the board to suspend that change for the time being.

Since September, students participating in Friday prayers at their schools have been restricted to the use of six pre-approved sermons. Previously, the board's policy said that students were able to use any sermon that had been approved by an administrator.

"I feel like this [new] policy, this procedure, whatever you want to call it, it really just gives this sort of guilt," said Meleeha Baig, who works with Muslim high school students in Peel Region.

The 22-year-old alumna of Mississauga's Clarkson Secondary School called the change "unacceptable" while addressing trustees during the meeting. She likened the policy as a return to "colonial values."

"The board should not be policing religion," added Shahmir Durrani, who also addressed the board.

Durrani says the policy is unjust because it specifically targets Islam.

"There's this assumption that Muslim youth aren't promoting a peaceful message," he said. "It's very negative and it negatively affects the mindset of these youth."

Sermons developed with local imams

The Peel District School Board says it worked for more than a year with 10 local imams to develop the six sermons to be used during Friday prayers, called Jumu'ah in Islam.

Jumu'ah is the sole group prayer activity allowed by the Peel District School Board.

In the past, principals were supposed to approve individual sermons. The board says this was a challenging process because they were written in Arabic and covering topics outside the usual bounds of public school administrators.

"What we heard from principals is that that was making them uncomfortable, that they were basically reviewing the faith work of students," said Brian Woodland, director of communications and community relations with the Peel District School Board.

Peel REgional School Board Meeting

The crowd at Tuesday night's regular Peel Regional School Board meeting. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

The board says it intended to use the six sermons as a starting point, and that it would eventually have a collection of hundreds of sermons available to students.

"It just so happens that six have come through to date," said Imam Omar Sudebar, who helped develop the sermons.

But another Peel region imam said the process had been shrouded in secrecy.

Imam Ibrahim Hindy also said the restriction risks evoking memories of dictatorial regimes where freedom of speech is tightly restricted, especially among newcomers to Canada.

"Regardless of whether that is the intent, that is the memory it triggers," he said.

A simple solution

Critics of the change say a system where sermons are supervised by teachers or other supervisors would easily solve their concerns.

"It had been working extremely well," said Shahmir Durrani.

"For the most part a lot of the sermons were very much about respecting your parents, being good to your community, being good citizens," added Meleeha Baig.

After listening to the complaints at its meeting, the board suspended the policy change, and will review it again later in November.

Peel District School Board chair Janet McDougald says any new system will still rely on school staff approving the sermons in some capacity.

"We do have a duty to supervise and know exactly what's happening in our schools," she said.