A Toronto school district's practice of allowing Muslim students to pray during school hours has been met with fierce protests from numerous parents. Following a heated school board meeting where several audience members broke out into Islamophobic rhetoric, Ontario officials have reaffirmed their support for the school board's religious accommodation.
The Peel District School Board has allowed Muslim students to gather for a prayer group every Friday for decades. The Toronto-based district, located in the province of Ontario, Canada, has come under fire from several local residents who assert that allowing the prayer congregations is inappropriate for secular schools.
On March 6, an online petition called for the Peel school board to discontinue the accommodation. The petition asserted that allowing Muslim students to pray in schools enforces segregation, undue financial costs and an inappropriate exposure to religion within educational facilities, The Toronto Star reports.
Ontario law mandates that schools must make religious accommodations so long as they do not pose a safety risk or financial burden. Mayor Linda Jeffrey of Brampton has asserted that the Peel school board is working well within the guidelines of local law.
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"Letting Muslim students for 20 minutes in an empty space with the supervision of volunteer staff does not cause any financial hardship," Jeffrey said.
On March 11, roughly 200 demonstrators marched to the Peel school board headquarters to protest the practice.
"Our statement today was very clear of keeping religion out of public schools," organizer Jignesh Upadhyaya told the Mississauga. "These special accommodations people are getting for religious for religious practices, we are opposed to that."
On March 22, tensions came to a head during a Peel school board meeting, when several attendees broke out into anti-Muslim rhetoric.
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The incident ignited when one audience member stood up and tore up a Quran, followed by several others shouting out anti-Muslim rhetoric.
"They used language and comments that were the most hateful that I have ever seen in my career," Peel spokesman Brian Woodland told The Globe and Mail. "I was actually deeply shaken by what I heard. I'm not sure I've ever in my life seen this level of hatred."
In response to the incident, Ontario Education Minister Mitzie Hunter and Minister of children and youth services Michael Coteau released a joint statement supporting the Peel school board.
"We know that the Peel District School Board has been working closely with their students and the community for more than a decade on religious accommodation in their schools and we are pleased to see their commitment to inclusion," Mitzie and Coteau said.
"Realizing the promise of Ontario's diversity is a continuous process grounded in actively respecting the valuing the full range of our differences," the ministers added.
The Peel school board has announced that it will not accept any further public input on the topic.