All Posts Tagged With: "religious accommodation"
TDSB is breaking its own gender discrimination policy
The Toronto District School Board has gotten a lot of flak this week for its decision to allow weekly Islamic prayer sessions in one of its school’s cafeterias. While supporters and critics have been relentlessly debating the existential question of prayer in public schools, one group caught in the middle has garnered only a fraction of the attention. I’m referring to the female students who participate in Friday prayers at Valley Park Middle School, relegated to the back on the cafeteria and not permitted to participate when menstruating. Indeed, the TDSB itself has mostly skirted (no pun intended) the issue of gender segregation during prayers at Valley Park, absolving itself of responsibility by stating, ”We do not have the authority to tell faith groups how to pray.”
Indeed, the Board is not of such authority in most situations, but here the prayers are happening during school hours, on public school property. Based on sheer geography alone, the TDSB has an obligation to see that the values and provisions outlined in its own Human Rights Policy are upheld within its school walls. The policy states that the Board has, “a duty to maintain an environment respectful of human rights and free of discrimination,” and may not “allow or condone behaviour contrary to this policy.”
How is it that the TDSB can call for instruction on sexism and gender inequality in its Social Studies classes, yet look the other way when girls are facing active discrimination within its walls?
The TDSB’s position is clear. It allows for the differential treatment of girls within its walls by insisting that the services are a community-run initiative, solicited by Valley Park parents and run by a neighbourhood imam. Indeed, according to a statement released by Chris Spence, TDSB director of education, :The division of the sexes which occurs during the service is a part of the Islamic faith.”
But faith or not, and supposed autonomy or not, the TDSB has an obligation to its students to provide a safe space free from discrimination. And it is all clear in writing; all persons operating on TDSB premises much adhere to Human Rights Policy. It states, “This policy applies to all Toronto District School Board students, employees, trustees, and other users such as members of consultative committees, clients of the Board, parents, volunteers, permit holders, contractors, and employees of organizations not related to the Board but who nevertheless work on or are invited onto Board premises.” (Emphasis mine.)
But the problem is more significant than just an inherent contradiction in rules. Indeed, the more important issue is that when a public school—a supposed beacon of equality—suddenly tolerates discrimination within its four walls, it compromises its status as a safe space for all students. Religious accommodation in public schools should exist as a means for equity, not a medium of exclusion. And it should only be enforced insofar as the individual rights and freedoms of all students may still be upheld. The TDSB must practice what it (literally) preaches if it hopes to give any authority to its lessons on gender equality and discrimination. It cannot stand idly as its female students are sent to the back of the room, especially when that room is just down the hall.
Winnipeg school board should deny student request to opt out of music, co-ed gym class
Winnipeg’s Louis Riel School Division (LRSD) has been approached by a group of new Canadian parents who want their children exempted from certain elementary school classes.
No, Manitoba’s premier has not adopted Dalton McGuinty’s proposal for anal sex lectures for tweens; these parents want their children removed from music and co-ed physical education classes. According to superintendent Terry Borys, the Muslim parents are concerned about their kids participating in classes involving singing and musical instruments, as well as mixed-gender gym classes. “The families accept physical education,” Borys told the Winnipeg Free Press, “as long as the boys and girls have separate classes.”
A local Muslim leader interviewed by the Free Press said there is no religious reason why these kids should be exempted from the classes. “My first concern would be, who are these new immigrants talking to?” he said. “This is the first time I am hearing this — I’m not very happy about it.” He added that while music can be controversial for some in the community, those people are generally in the minority.
Still, the request is being seriously considered by members of the LRSD, who have already consulted with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission and proposed the idea that students complete a writing project in lieu of participating in music classes.
Of course, this type of religious accommodation in secular schools is not new. Religious students have long been able to request exemption from sexual education programs, for example. Catholic school boards in Ontario (which are publicly funded) don’t even have to teach the same sexual health curriculum that is mandated for other boards. And at this point, the concept seems nothing but silly and tired. How can educators and policy makers preach the unequivocal value of the provincial curriculum, while at the same time resign to “Well, I guess STI prevention lessons aren’t that important”?
Public school curricula are specifically formulated (at least on paper) to provide a well-rounded education while promoting Canadian values such as equality of the sexes. These values should not be subject to religious accommodation. Many districts—the Toronto District School Board, for example—have developed certain policies for dealing with certain religious clashes. TDSB guidelines state that, “While the Board works to create a school system free from religious discrimination, this freedom is not absolute.” It continues: “If a parent/guardian/ caregiver asks for his or her child to be exempt from any discussion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or same-sex-family issue, the request cannot be granted because it violates the TDSB Human Rights Policy.”
So you can close your eyes and plug your ears if you want to, but you’re gonna have to hear about how gay people are entitled to the same rights as you. Even if you’re religious. Sorry. The same idea can and should be applied to the Winnipeg parents’ request for segregated gym classes. Granted, I understand why girls and boys are sometimes separated for physical education in upper years; no one really wants to be going through puberty and doing squats beside a pal of the opposite gender, after all. Plus, as boys and girls develop they diverge in terms of strengths and physical abilities. It makes sense that they would be separated when playing sports, competing in races, relays, etc. But the same isn’t true for little boys and girls. Indeed, it can take nothing more than a bad haircut for one to be confused for the other. Separating girls and boys for physical education during the elementary years sends the wrong message about gender equality; at that age, drawing gender lines is as arbitrary as separating kids based on hair colour. All it does is reinforce difference, and emphasize the idea that girls and boys are not equal. Perhaps more subtle than the sexual orientation example, but important nonetheless.
Allowing students to opt out of music class, on the other hand, doesn’t really upset Canadian values (after all, we did produce Justin Bieber, so what does that say?) but it does undermine the self-professed value of public education. The Winnipeg school board believes learning music is an integral aspect of a well-rounded education, and so, has included it as mandatory in its elementary school curriculum. Parents, on the whole, seem to agree. To allow students to opt out for religious reasons is to forfeit the contention that music is important for growth, just as to allow students to sit out of sex-ed is to concede that learning about birth control is of limited importance, only appropriate for some students. If the Winnipeg board wants to maintain confidence in its program, it should stand by its curriculum.