No, Muslims are not taking over public school boards

For years, the Peel District School Board has allowed Muslim students to use school space for Friday prayers. The issue now is whether students should be allowed to write their own sermons. That, according to some in the community, is a step too far.

Though given the recent theatre, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise

Stills from a cellphone video where a man is shown ripping pages out of a Qur'an and throwing them on the floor during a Peel District School Board meeting. (CBC)

Those who still doubt the existence of Islamophobia in Canada after the Quebec mosque shooting and the hateful rhetoric aired over M-103, the motion condemning religious discrimination, need only look to the hysteria engulfing the Peel District School Board (PDSB).

For years, the Peel board has allowed Muslim students to use school space for Friday prayers, an exercise in religious accommodation practised by a handful of schools in Ontario and beyond. The issue at Peel more recently has been the question of whether students should be allowed to write their own sermons. That, according to some in the community, is a step too far, and has led to calls to scrap the prayer spaces altogether.

Just the day before M-103 was passed, a group of more than 80 protesters showed up and disrupted a Peel board meeting over what they deem to be unreasonable accommodation. According to board spokesperson Brian Woodland, one of the protesters tore up a copy of a Qur'an, while another stomped on the pages and others shouted "fairly horrific" anti-Muslim statements. The police, who were there due to prior disruptions over the same issue, had to clear out the public so that the meeting could continue.

Imam Omar Subedar took this picture of a Qur'an destroyed at a recent Peel District School Board meeting. (Shaykh Omar Subedar/Facebook)

Let's get one thing out of the way here before we go on: no, Muslims are not taking over the school system. Though given the theatre, one could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

Per mainstream teachings, Muslims must participate in congregational prayers on Fridays. Schools across the country have accommodated such requests for decades with few issues. Objections were raised in 2011 in the Thorncliffe Park community in Toronto, but they were subsequently shut down by the Toronto District School Board, which stood firm on its principles of non-discrimination and inclusiveness.

Opponents contend that secular schools should not accommodate religion. This is disingenuous for two reasons. First, as the board's lawyers would have advised them, they are legally mandated to provide reasonable accommodation when requested by any protected group.

The Ontario Human Rights Code and related case law make it abundantly clear that reasonable accommodations must be provided up to the point of "undue hardship," which may refer to costs, health, safety or other overriding issues that would weigh in favour of denying the request. None of these are applicable in this context.

"Letting Muslim students pray for 20 minutes in an empty space with the supervision of volunteer staff does not cause any financial hardship," Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey noted, rightly.

Secondly, though critics try to make this issue about religion in school generally, we all know what the furor about accommodation in Peel is actually about.

A PDSB statement laid it out plainly: "It has been frustrating and disheartening to see what is often hatred and prejudice towards a single faith group disguised in a supposed campaign about religion in schools."

"This is a campaign against Islam — counter to the laws of the country, the Ontario Human Rights Code, and our board values," it added.

If Muslim youth were already feeling marginalized and alienated, these sorts of protests will only make it worse. On the other hand, allowing such youth — who value religion as a central element of their identity — to practice their faith will only help reinforce the message that they can be Muslims and still be equally respected as a Canadian. 

This is not a new accommodation, nor is it an unreasonable one. And no: Sharia law is not creeping into our public schools. But if we look at the actions and rhetoric of recent protesters, it looks like hate and Islamophobia just might be.   

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Faisal Kutty teaches at Valparaiso University Law School in Indiana and Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto. He also serves as counsel at KSM Law. You can follow him on Twitter at: