Teaching Reflections

The Muddy Waters of Religion in Ontario Public Schools

This is going to be one of those blogs you either love or hate. The old saying goes that to avoid controversy (especially in social settings), one must divert discussions away from issues relating to politics and religion. Well, this blog will touch on both of those topics, so I’m bound to have as many supporters as critics, but here it goes……

Before I even dip my toe into this minefield, let’s take a look at a general definition of the word religion.Screen Shot 2018-04-09 at 11.37.15 PM.png

Based on this reference, a religion requires a couple elements: a belief in a higher power, and system of faith and worship (i.e. rituals). Really, it’s pretty vague, as it should be. Current and historical human religions are incredibly diverse, but regardless of their individual focus have the aforementioned qualities. Anyone who has studied religion can attest to that. Moreover, to complicate things, the line between cultural and religious practices also blurs, especially with many religious practices, holidays and customs becoming secular within cultures around the world.

I once took a religious course in university where my prof repeated a couple phrases over and over again: i) To be human is to be religious; the two are intertwined.  ii) The sacred and profane worlds exists in every context of human life. These two phrases have remained in my conscious all these years later and genuinely form my understanding of human religious practice; they also reflect my understanding of the relationship between religion and education.

Based on my belief of the intertwined relationship between humans and religion, as well as sacred experiences, I don’t think it’s possible to ban religion from any aspect of public life, including education. It’s a part of our human history and experience, and shouldn’t be ignored. Nevertheless, our government in their infinite wisdom have attempted this since the mid-80’s.

Recently, there have been many debates about the muddy waters of religion in Ontario public schools, especially focusing on the double standard of minority religions being given special privileges, whereby Christian religious practices and study have been completely banned.

Case in point: I was invited to participate in a smudging ceremony recently at my public school, and I couldn’t help but make the connection to my experience as a Roman Catholic. Just last week at Easter mass, our priest and his deacons spread holy water into the crowd as a symbol of rebirth and cleansing/purifying of our Christian souls. Similarly, during the smudging ceremony, in the context of indigenous religious beliefs our collective souls were cleansed by the practice of smudging or bathing in smoke.

Smudging is an activity that is open to all indigenous  students to participate in during the school day, in designated areas of many public schools across the province of Ontario. Can you imagine the uproar that would occur if the same rules applied to students who happened to practice Roman Catholic religion? Trust me, there won’t be a priest spreading holy water in any Ontario public school anytime soon, yet a similar religious practice for non-Christian students has suddenly become completely acceptable.

As these thoughts swirled in my mind, I realized that I couldn’t be the only person whose made this connection, so…… I Googled it. Sure enough, I’m late to the party on this debate. In 2016, a mother in BC sued a local school board after her children were pressured into participating in a smudging ceremony (one she viewed as a religious ceremony). Moreover, the debate of whether smudging should occur in public schools due to its religious nature has been a topic of more than one prominent newspaper article, including those published on cbc.ca as well as The Globe and Mail.

Reading the aforementioned articles on the topic of the smudging debate led me into reading about another religious controversy that has recently rocked Ontario public schools: allowing Imams to preach in schools, as well special prayer privileges for Muslim students on Fridays. The article on the topic published in May of last year by the Toronto Star notes the details of the dispute: Muslim prayers in schools get provincial endorsement. In this context, another minority religious group has been allowed what seems to be special privileges to practice religion in a public school setting.

In response to the Muslim prayer endorsement, the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association issued a statement saying “the schools of Ontario welcome and provide a safe place for students who practice the very broadest range of religions and beliefs.” I have to admit I laughed out loud when I read that. From a Christian perspective this is a farce. Since the 1980’s when all aspects of religion were ‘apparently’ removed from public schools Christmas concerts have turned into holiday concerts, Easter teas into Spring teas and teaching any aspect of Christianity (even in an academic context such as biblical allusions and proverbs) has been actively discouraged. Recently, public school teachers have been pressured by board officials to even avoid the salutation, “Merry Christmas”. Hmmm……not too inclusive.

Clearly, the real problem here lies in the issue of political correctness whereby Christians (dominant religious group) are banned from practicing religion in public schools, but minority groups such as Muslims and Indigenous peoples are allowed some leeway in religious practices. To compound the issue, if Christians even question the double standard allowed for minority religious groups, they are labeled as racists. And herein lies the hypocrisy of multiculturalism. In my opinion, to be truly multicultural is to allow all cultural and religious groups the same opportunities and experiences. In public education in Ontario, this clearly is not the case in 2018. The public system has simply moved from favouring Christian beliefs and holidays to essentially banning them and allowing minority religious practices special privileges.

Hypocrisy really irks me, as I know it does many others. Unfortunately, on the topic of multiculturalism we see these double standards arise in many settings from special rules about laws for minorities (such as Sikhs not having to wear motorcycle helmets), to allowing Muslim women to cover their faces in government issued identification.

I genuinely believe that these double standards are the achilles heel of multiculturalism in Canada being truly accepted by the population as a whole. What many politicians on the left can’t seem to get is that when they allow these double standards, they are seriously aggravating a large segment of the Canadian population and essential creating a backlash to multiculturalism that is quite avoidable if they would simply make the playing field equal for everyone.

Getting back to my original topic of religion in public schools, the fact that the Ontario School Boards Council acknowledges the need for religious diversity in public school is actually a good thing. However, these privileges need to be more overtly egalitarian for all religious practices. It also needs to be made clear to parents when and how religious activities (however vague this definition is) will be practiced in the school, as well as allowing student and staff choice in participating in the activities.

Should Indigenous students be allowed to have a sacred place to smudge in a public school if they so desire? Yes, but other students should not be exposed to it if they don’t wish to be. For example, in my opinion, due to it’s religious context a smudging should not take place at a school assembly as it essentially forces students and staff to take part in a form of a religious ceremony they may not identify with.

Should Muslim students be allowed to pray at school and/or listen to a religious sermon? Yes, but students from other religious affiliations should all be offered the same privileges. If a school offers a Muslim prayer/sermon, then they should also offer a Catholic/Christian mass and Jewish prayer times/sermons as well.

Should Christians feel free to say ‘Merry Christmas’ to their peers and school staff? Yes – and students of any other religious group should be encouraged to offer greetings that reflect their religious practices and celebrations.

To ban religious activities from Ontario public schools isn’t the answer to the problem. In my opinion, inclusion and equal opportunities should be offered to all religious practices for public school students. In this scenario, students will have the opportunity to be exposed to a variety of religious practices and rituals (if they wish). They will also have the opportunity to learn about the history of various religions and their impact on Canadian society.

To ban or diminish the importance of any religion is wrong, and in my opinion impossible. Human culture has spanned over 100,000 years and in this time humans have been consistently tied to religious deities, practices and rituals. Based on this understanding, banning religion from our education system today should be seen as both ignorant and ridiculous. To be human is to be religious. If anything, we need to work towards learning more about a variety of religions and religious practices and acknowledging them all in a public education system, not banning some and providing special privileges to others.

What are your thoughts and experiences with religion in public schools in Ontario? Comment below!




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