Secularization is flawed

A group called Religion out of Schools recently said religious accommodation could lead to "unsolicited exposure to religion." It's the latest salvo in a ongoing debate over Islam in an Ontario school district. Sachin Maharaj says these calls for secularism in public schools are not as they appear.
Calls for secularism in public schools are really just an attempt to maintain the religious accommodations of the Christian majority, says Sachin Maharaj, a Canada Graduate Scholar in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Toronto. (iStock)

Over the past months, religion has been a very contentious issue in the Peel School District in Ontario — after that school board banned and then reversed their ban on Muslim students writing their own sermons during Friday prayers.

Since then, some people have been making it known that they are against Muslim students praying in school spaces, with some going so far as to interrupt a recent school board meeting and tear pages out of a Qur'an.

Also, a petition by a group called Religion out of Schools argued that religious accommodation could lead to "unsolicited exposure to religion."

But Sachin Maharaj, a PhD candidate in educational policy at the University of Toronto, says this call for secularism in public schools is not as it appears.

He co-authored an opinion piece with diversity consultant Nadir Shirazi that appeared in the Toronto Star.

Here is his radio essay for The 180:

Religious accommodation has a long, acrimonious history in Canada.

And every time it comes up, it's treated as a life-and-death struggle over the fabric of Canadian identity.

The stories typically involve a minority group that requests an accommodation it believes is required to freely practice its faith.

These demands are almost always met by a chorus of opposition that demands our institutions stay secular.

But make no mistake, in Canada, 'secular' means maintaining the traditions of the Christian majority.

All you have to do is look back at recent history to see how this idea of "secularism" was used against Sikhs.

Education PhD candidate Sachin Maharaj believes that if Canada is really committed to diversity and pluralism, then public schools could recognise all the major religious holidays observed by students. (Sachin Maharaj)

Remember how hard it was for people to accept the idea of a Mountie in a turban?

And in 1988, Harbhajan Singh Pandori was fired from the Peel Board of Education for refusing to give up his kirpan, a small ceremonial dagger that is considered mandatory to carry in the Sikh faith. 

There was a public outcry after the Ontario Human Rights Commission ruled that Sikhs could wear kirpans at schools, under certain circumstances. 

A petition was signed by 6,000 people, one of whom commented "I do believe that when you come to another country, try to go with our tradition."

And that asks the question: What exactly is "our tradition?" 

It is often presented as secular, but this is a façade. 

If you look closely, our tradition in Canada is a history of accommodations to Christians, especially when it comes to our schools.

That's why up until the late 1980s and early 1990s, supposedly public schools in Ontario still had mandatory Bible study and began each day with the Lord's Prayer. 

And it is important to remember that school boards fought hard to keep these "traditions," and only abandoned them when forced to by the Ontario Court of Appeal.

Even today, religious accommodations for Christians persist. It is why schools are closed on Sundays, Good Friday, Easter Monday, and Christmas, but not Vaisakhi, Eid or Diwali. 

And it is also why the only religious schools to receive public funding in Ontario are Catholic.

If we really wanted schools to be secular, we would move toward one publicly funded system in which all the major religious holidays of our students are recognized and celebrated.

This is what was done in New York City in 2015, where for the first time, all schools were closed for both Eid and Yom Kippur. 

It is also what is done in Trinidad and Tobago, where Christmas, Eid and Diwali are all public holidays.

In a country as supposedly committed to diversity and pluralism as Canada, it should be easy for us to do the same. 

It would be a great chance to lead by example on religious and cultural diversity, and foster greater religious acceptance 

But if we're not willing to do this, we should at least be honest about why.

The status quo is not value-neutral. Let's stop pretending that we want secularism, when what we really want is to maintain the religious accommodations of the Christian majority, at the expense of everyone else.


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