Controversy about Islam prayer at Ontario school continues

The Globe and Mail – July 8, 2011

More than two-thirds of the population that surrounds Valley Park, in Toronto’s northeast, have arrived in the past 20 years, primarily from India, Pakistan and more recently Afghanistan – reflecting Canada’s shifting urban demographics. The school draws many of its students from Thorncliffe Park, a one-kilometre horseshoe of apartment buildings packed with 30,000 people – a neighbourhood that is known for having the highest concentration of Muslims in Canada. Now it’s becoming known for something else: It’s at the centre of a growing debate over the place of religion in the public school system.

This week, a complaint about imam-led prayer sessions at the school has made unlikely allies of diverse religious interest groups and secularists, from the Canadian Hindu Advocacy to the Muslim Canadian Congress to the Canadian Secular Alliance.

From November to March, the pupils enter the cafeteria segregated by sex, with boys at the front separated from girls at the back. The imam stands at the front with a microphone and begins with a short lesson in English, usually about the importance of discipline or mutual respect, said a parent volunteer, and then leads a prayer in Arabic. Until a week ago, Valley Park’s three-year policy of accommodating Muslim pupils who wanted to pray during school hours had caused barely a ripple. Then the Canadian Hindu Advocacy complained that it violated a policy banning religious instruction in public schools, which raised a chorus of opposition as well as support.