Tempers flare over prayer in schools

Two sides squared off outside Toronto District School Board headquarters Saturday over religious prayer in classrooms.

A rally held to recognize the Toronto District School Board for allowing rights and freedoms turned into a shouting match Saturday between religious groups.

About 200 people squared off outside the Toronto District School Board's head office, concerned about Muslim prayer in the city's public schools.

Groups including the Jewish Defence League of Canada, the Canadian Hindu Advocacy and the Christian Heritage Group, are upset that a middle school in the city's north end has provided Muslim students cafeteria space for a weekly prayer service, saying the board showed favouritism to Islam.

Chris Andrewsen who organized what was supposed to be a day of appreciation for the TDSB, said they should be allowed to express their beliefs.

"If we are religious people then we should be allowed to express that. It's not an imposition on other people," Andrewsen said.

But some opponents say allowing students to pray on school property goes against the school board's policy that schools should be a place of study free from cultural or religious influence. While others say the right should be left open to all groups.

"We want respect for all religions. We want the Toronto District School Board to be consistent and stop discriminating [against] one religion over others," said Tony Costa, who is part of a multi-faith coalition opposed to Islamic prayer services in public schools.

Despite the opposition, school board officials say they will continue to allow the prayer inside the school.

"Whenever you have an issue that has sides to it, you will have people that want to get their positions heard and I think part of our role is actually to listen to the diversity of opinion," said Shelley Laskin, a school trustee. "But I am very confident that the board is applying its religious accommodation policy appropriately."

Valley Park Middle School opened up cafeteria space for the Friday service three years ago after it noticed that Muslim students who left to attend midday services at a nearby mosque often failed to return to classes.

The prayer session is led by a local imam. The cost of the service, available for the more than 300 Muslim students at the school, is paid for by the Muslim community.

"I think that what we're doing is what we should be doing as a school board and that is accommodating students' needs no matter what their religion is," said Gerri Gershon, a Trustee for Don Valley West, where Valley Park Middle School is located.