All publicly funded schools in the province are required to provide religious accommodations when requested by students or their parents CNS photo/Bill Schaefer

Muslim prayer room welcomed at Catholic school

By 
  • September 26, 2012

Concerns that the establishment of a prayer room, requested by Muslim students, at a London, Ont., Catholic high school will water down the school’s Catholic faith are just plain wrong, says the school board’s education director.

“First of all it’s a prayer room, it’s not named after a particular faith,” said Wilma de Rond, director of education for the London District Catholic School Board (LDCSB). “When a request comes from another faith there is no request for us to provide any sort of accommodation for them that in some way impacts our faith.”

Although de Rond dismisses the concern, it has been circulating in the media since news about the second floor prayer room at Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary School broke earlier this month.

Earlier this year about 25 students at the southwestern Ontario school, with a student body of about 1,400, submitted a request to the principal for a room for Islamic prayer during lunch period on Fridays. This is the first religious accommodation request of its kind for the board, said de Rond.

The Ministry of Education’s Developing and Implementing Equity and Inclusive Education Policies in Ontario Schools requires all publicly funded schools in the province to provide religious accommodations when requested by students or their parents, provided that doing so does not cause excessive grievance to the school. As long as it does not place burdensome costs on the school, interrupt instructional time or directly conflict with existing policies/practices, the school is obliged to do so, as is the case in London.

“We are trying to work  in a way that is respectful for our own faith, our Catholic faith, but also respectful of the fact that these young people have made a request that they want to be able to follow their faith,” said de Rond.

The goal, according to de Rond, is to outfit the room in a way that will satisfy the requirements for the Muslim students while maintaining an atmosphere where other students can use the room. Although no other groups have requested use of the room, it will be available outside the time allocated to the Muslim group.

De Rond sees this as nothing more than a learning experience. She did admit, though, that not everyone views this matter through that lens.
“Unfortunately there have been some concerns expressed in terms of racial comments which again is most unfortunate and is not in keeping with who we are as Catholic in terms of beliefs of our call to love one another,” she said. “There has also been expressions of very positive affirmation of this decision as well.”

The prayer room at Mother Teresa was expected to be completed by the end of September, although de Rond stressed there were still details to be worked out.

“It’s interesting for us to learn about a particular faith so it’s been a good thing for us to be able to have these conversations with the students and their parents and so we are proceeding forward in terms of our understanding of what will occur, how they pray, what they pray for (and) what the words of the prayers will be,” she said. “It’s increasing our own understanding, which is a good thing.”

Other Catholic boards are sure to receive similar requests, and are also seeing this as an opportunity. 

“It’s not an imposition on us at all,” said Michael Way Skinner, co-ordinater of religion, family life and equity at the York Catholic District School Board. “It is an expression of who we are as Catholics. When we as a Catholic community accept that call to be welcoming to people of other faiths we are actually putting into practice what we are trying to teach the kids in the classroom and it’s by what we do, it’s by our fruits that they’ll judge us, not by what we say to them and what we try to teach to them off chalkboards or smartboards.”

Although he supports the idea, Way Skinner did admit his board might not be able to fulfill similar requests. It’s not that the board is unwilling, rather, most York Region schools are already pushing capacity and allocating an entire room for a weekly prayer service would cause excessive grievance.

“It might be a space like in the library or somewhere like that that is a quiet space for the students to gather to pray if they wanted to,” said Way Skinner.

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