Three months ago, the controversial anti-bullying legislation (Bill 13) was passed at Queen’s Park, mandating all Ontario schools, including Catholic schools, to allow gay-straight alliances (GSAs). Both the governing Liberals and the NDP voted for its passage with the rationale that “there are values that transcend any one faith.”
I agree, and I applauded the decision. I supported it because I am a firm believer that all publicly funded schools should be places of learning where every student feels welcomed and safe regardless of their sex, religion, physical/mental capacity or sexual orientation.
Last week we learned that Ontario’s minister of education had permitted officials at a Catholic high school in London to build a Muslim prayer room on the second floor of their building.
Admittedly, when I first read the news, I was unsure whether or not I agreed with this. My initial reaction, similar to other individuals was, If Muslim students want the right to pray while at school, why don’t they just attend a public school?
But the more I contemplated, the more I realized there really is no difference between the issue of GSAs and the decision to allow 24 Muslim students to pray once a week in converted office space in a Catholic school.
You see, the parents of these Muslim students have, in fact, sent their children to a public school; it just happens to be a Catholic one. For that reason, the same logic used in the GSA issue should apply here as well. That is to say, if your institution is funded by taxpayers, it is entirely reasonable to ask that no one faith transcends the values we cherish as Ontarians, including the right to pray to whichever god you choose.
However, if this right is to be granted, then the equal treatment of girls and women in any and every corner of this country must also be defended. Therefore, the responsibility rests with the school administration and the 24 Muslim students to ensure that their female classmates pray beside, and not behind, their male counterparts.
Understandably, for some, this is a contentious and complex issue, but allow me to clarify some misgivings that are already beginning to emerge in this debate.
Firstly, this has nothing to do with the encroachment of Islam chipping away at the “secular” fabric of our society; we have a long way to go before we can genuinely call ourselves a secular province. We can start by creating one truly public school system and asking parents who want their children educated within the religious institution of their choice to pay for that indoctrination themselves.
Secondly, this is not about allowing the practice of religious services in publicly funded schools through the back door; Catholic students continue to pray and worship openly, during school hours, and at the expense of Ontario taxpayers.
Finally, allowing 24 young Muslims students the right to pray once a week inside the walls of a Catholic school is not the beginning of the end, and it will not result in the systematic removal of crucifixes in schools across this province. Anyone who genuinely believes this threat to be true is choosing to propagate fear and is willfully ignoring reality.
If anything, the staff and students at Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School should be immensely proud of their school community. Considering all the religious protests currently taking place in the Middle East and North Africa, this decision, approved by a principal, a school board and the government, should be seen as an attestation of what a functional, fair and pluralistic society has the capacity to become.