Muslim students can write their own sermons as Peel school board reverts to previous policy

Muslim parents and members of the faith community called on the Peel Regional School Board Tuesday to allow students to write their own sermons — a return to a previous policy, recently recommended by board staff.

'This was about creating a safe space for students,' lawyer Zoya Alam says

Lawyer Zoya Alam applauded the return to the previous religious accommodation practice, saying it provides a 'safe space' for all students. (Mehdard Nazarahari/CBC)

Muslim parents and members of the faith community celebrated the Peel Regional School Board's decision Tuesday to allow students to write their own sermons — a return to a previous policy and one recently recommended by board staff.

"The board has always been committed to an inclusive approach in all activities related to religious accommodation for students and staff of all faiths," director of education Tony Pontes said in a statement released Tuesday night. 

The meeting marks the end of a controversy that began in September when the board advised students they could only use one of six pre-written sermons during Friday prayers, known as Jumu'ah in Islam. At least 10 local imams helped develop the sermons, the board said at the time. 

'Creating a safe space'

But Muslim students and their parents protested the move, saying it limited the children's religious freedom — and also promoted a prejudiced view of Islam and its followers. 

The Peel District School Board agreed Tuesday to revert to a previous religious accommodation policy that would allow Muslim students to write their own sermons. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

After listening to the feedback from the community last year, board staff recommended a return to the previous policy on Friday. That meant students would have the choice to deliver sermons crafted themselves or those approved by the local imams.

"This was about creating a safe space for students, for students to feel equal to the rest of their peers," lawyer Zoya Alam said. "So, this is a positive step for the school board to be creating this safe space and inclusive community."

The sermons are delivered in English, except for verses quoted directly from the Qur'an, and will continue to be supervised by a staff member, according to the updated policy.

Board trustee Nokha Dakroub had previously told CBC Toronto that a Muslim teacher would usually sit in on the sermons, noting she couldn't recall a teacher ever having to interrupt. 

Board spokesperson Ryan Reyes said in an email that there were "a few situations where staff had to intervene," but added that those instances were rare.

Protesters with anti-Islamic signs attended the meeting Tuesday and Peel Regional Police officers escorted this woman outside after she launched into a racially-charged outburst. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Several police officers attended the meeting after some Muslim students noted they had been the target of hate speech as the discussion about their Friday prayers got more attention.  

Protesters appeared carrying signs with anti-Islamic messages, which board trustees told them to put away. Two police officers took a woman outside after she began a racially-charged outburst.

The sentiments are "hurtful and hateful," Alam said after the meeting. "It's definitely concerning, especially for the students who are still in school right now."

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story identified Zoya Alam as a high school student. In fact, she is a lawyer.
    Jan 11, 2017 11:56 AM ET