Opposing Prayer in Public School is Not Racist

How’s that for a click-bait title?

As I was having my breakfast this morning, I read an article in the Toronto Star called Moving from Religious Accommodation to Religious Acceptance. The topic itself is something that interests me, and I thought there might also be some good points that I could use for a post about moving from disability accommodation to acceptance.

And then steam started coming out my ears.

The article is about anti-Muslim paranoia and its prevalence in Canadian society. The writer makes the point that in order to move past the fear and negative stereotypes that exists in connection to Islam and Muslims, we must “rehabilitate people who probably do not have many personal relationships with Muslims” and engage in “ongoing dialogic work directly with racists, bigots and Islamophobes.”

All right, so I’ll give them that. I don’t think the point is made very well that they are talking exclusively about people who have an irrational fear of Islam or racist opinions, rather than those who simply don’t know many Muslins, but let’s go with it.

What we shall not go with is a point made early in the article.

Starting with the discussion of people who oppose the Peel District School Board’s decision to allow Muslim prayer in schools, the writers label people who oppose prayer as racist and bigoted.

They state “while those who oppose prayer in public schools are continually painted as a loud minority or lunatic fringe, this view is more mainstream than people realize. According to OISE’s 2012 Public Attitudes Toward Education survey, only 38 per cent of Ontarians support prayer sessions during school hours.”

Not Muslim prayer. Just prayer.* And that does not equate to racism or bigotry.

Please allow a small sidetrack for historical context.

When my family and I first came to Canada 35 years ago, public schools started the day with the Lord’s Prayer and had to include religious instruction as part of the curriculum. City councils and many other bodies and institutions supported by taxes also started the day or meetings with the Lord’s Prayer. Canada had officially been designated a multicultural society, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteed religious rights, and the Ontario Human Rights Code designated religion as a protected ground. And let’s not forget the separation of church and state.

Nonetheless, Christianity was shoved down the throat of everyone and it continued well into the 1990s. During the Lord’s Prayer, schoolchildren of different faiths (or of no faith) were expected to quietly say their own prayer or have a moment of silence. While the people in authority said the Christian prayer.

This was patently not okay. So the solution was to remove prayer from public school, city councils, and so on. I  believe they've replaced it with a moment of silence during which you can do your own thing.

Getting back to the article, I would assume that many of the 62 percent who oppose prayer in public school may have formed that opinion during the last several decades. I further suspect that they may believe public institutions — such as schools or governments — should be separate from religious expression. And okay, let me get specific here. I’m one of them.

This does not mean that I am against religious expression and I suspect many of those 62 percent aren’t either. It simply means that we believe that religious expression belongs in the home, in churches, synagogues, and mosques, but not as part of institutions that are supported by public taxes paid by a multicultural community.

Can this stand some updating? You bet. Whereas I still strongly believe that religious expression should not be part of the institutional fabric of schools, governments, etc., the people who are part of those institutions — schoolchildren, teachers, government workers, politicians — absolutely have the right to religious expression.

The difference is that there should be spaces where people can express their faith, as well as policies to enable those who pray at particular times of day, such as Muslims, to do so. That is a very different thing from incorporating a particular religion in the structure of schools, governments, and the workplace.

I’m going to end this on a pedantic note in reference to the article that prompted this post. Drawing the conclusion that people who are opposed to prayer in school are racist, bigoted, and anti-Muslim is sloppy writing. Given that the writers both come from a university setting, one of whom being a PhD candidate and one supposes familiar with research methodology, this is surprising. But more than this, that the article was allowed to go straight to publication without being queried is sloppy editing. The end result is an article that loses a very excellent point in the fog of being inflammatory.

* Having not read the study myself, I am not certain whether the question was asked about prayer in general or Muslim prayer sessions in particular. That the article does not specify this is also sloppy writing.


Liz said…
Yes, click-bate for sure! LOL Great writing as usual Lene. I would just like to add my two cents. The way I see it, is that students who belong to other faiths besides Islam (such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and so on), are not required to be involved in their religion during the day at school, on a daily basis, the way Muslims are. So offering students of other faiths a room, a place to observe their religion, is a non-offer...basically worth nothing. And what a room where only Muslim students will use a few times a day away from other non-Muslim students, amounts to self-segregation into an exclusive club.
Lene Andersen said…
Great comment, Liz. And you're right - it does said Muslim students apart. But the other side of the coin is that providing a space where someone can practice their faith in an area that's quiet, allowing for reflection (and that would be open to all students who wanted to pray), shows respect. Obviously it doesn't end with just a space, but must be supported by policies and practices that reinforces that respect. I don't know what the solution is to this. What do you think?

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