Monday, 3 April 2017

A Perspective on Prayer in Public Schools

Recently, a “news” article appeared in my social media feed. In it, the writer, Dean Daniels, reports that Brampton, Ontario, Mayor Linda Jefferies has allowed the Peel District School Board to allow Muslim prayers in its schools. It goes on to state that “one religion is being promoted over another” and that “no other religion is granted exclusive acknowledgment to students”.

It immediately generated feedback in my social media community. Those who took this at face value were understandably concerned. They asked questions, such as:

  • “Why can’t my son, who is Christian, be allowed to share his faith at school?”
  • “Why is only one group being provided with this opportunity?
  • Isn’t this a public school? Aren’t public schools supposed to keep faith out of the curriculum?”

Misinformation & Inaccuracies

Let’s break down some of the misinformation and inaccuracies in the article. The first thing I noticed was the “source” for this “news”. It comes from a website/blog called Immediately, that makes me question the veracity of the article. Dennis Michael Lynch is, by his own admission, a right-wing, pro-Republican pundit who has focused a significant portion of his work supporting an anti-immigrant agenda. I won’t politicize this writing more than I need to and I am not trying to oversimplify my argument by claiming the article is racist or Islamophobic. I just think it is important to mention that this is not an article written by any of the major news outlets in Southwestern Ontario, where the Peel Board and Brampton are located. Additionally, the website owner is an American - not a member of the Brampton, Mississauga or even Ontario community. The “author” of the article, a Dean Daniels, does not have any biographical information on the website. He does have an archive full of articles with a clear right wing, pro-Republican bent, so I am making the assumption that this is a pseudonym for Lynch or that he is also an American.

The headline claims that “parents are fuming”, but the article fails to identify these parents or the evidence from which this statement can be made. Who are these parents? Did you interview them? There is a great divide between "fuming" and "concerned". This is a powerful example of a “false narrative” leading to the “Misinformation Effect".  After reading the false narrative of the article (which I will discuss and debunk later), parents could be understandably upset. Consequently, the article suggests a reality that will eventually support its own claim. Hopefully, I can present a more honest narrative that will assuage those concerns.

Let’s start with the first line of the article, as I feel it speaks volumes about the absence of any quality, journalistic investigation. It reads, “Mayor Linda Jeffrey of Brampton, Ontario, has allowed the Peel District School Board to permit Muslim-based prayers within schools on Fridays…” For many Canadians, the problems with this statement is obvious. For those without that insight, I'll elaborate.

City mayors have no say in school board policy. In Canada, education falls entirely under provincial jurisdiction and is implemented by elected officials called trustees. (see here and here for more information).  Consequently, Ms. Jeffrey may have an opinion about prayer in school -- but she does not make or influence policy. Furthermore, the Peel District School Board covers the cities of Brampton and Mississauga as well as the town of Caledon. Why would the mayor from one area dictate policy to three?  

This is only one example of several that highlight a lack of journalistic integrity evident in this writing. However, I won’t waste  any more time picking the article apart. The inaccuracy evident in the first sentence of this article says enough.


I am an educator at a large school (900 students) in London, Ontario. London is, according to the 2011 census, the fifth largest city in Ontario and is predominantly caucasian. 82% of the population comes from European locations and 62% identify as Christian and only 4.4% of its citizens practicing the Islamic faith. Despite these numbers, I am at London’s most multicultural school. We currently have the largest population of English Language Learners (ELLs) in our board. Last year, we welcomed more than 80 students who fled the violence in Syria, the most in our board. Additionally, our proximity to the London Mosque, has resulted in a large Muslim population in our community. In fact, In my classroom, 17 out of my 28 students come from families that practise the Islamic faith. That number, about 60%, might be a little high for the school; but, I think it is fair to suggest, about half our students are Muslim. Consequently, I am writing from my perspective and I have no information on the practises of the Peel Board. It has, however, released a fact sheet to address the misinformation resulting from articles like this.

Some Truths

An important point about prayer needs to be made. Prayer has always been allowed in public schools. Public schools no longer promote any specific faith, but they also don’t prevent students or staff from celebrating their faith (as long as it does not interfere with other people). For example: At my last school, I had several Christian children who prayed before meals in the lunchroom. I have had students from families who are Jehovah’s Witness who have respectfully asked to permission remain seated during the National Anthem because it is in contravention of their beliefs. Additionally, they decline opportunities to participate in activities related to Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween or birthdays. A former principal at my current school was a devout Christian who ran a multi-faith prayer group at recess and I have also had Muslim students ask to go to a corner, in the classroom or hallway, to pray at midday (dhuhr) or in the afternoon (asr) which correspond reasonably with our Nutrition Break periods on our balanced day schedule.

Public schools are also required to provide a place for prayer when possible. The last two words are important. Students must be supervised at all times, so a private place can not always be provided. As I mentioned, at my school, the Muslim students would leave the classroom and find a place in the hallway where they could have a semi-private space but also be supervised. They would usually pray for about five minutes and then return to eat with their friends.

Our Muslim population has grown exponentially over the six year that I have taught at my current school, We are fortunate to have a large contingent of English as a Second Language (ESL) teachers, some of whom are Muslim and who speak Arabic. This team has volunteered to supervise a multi-faith prayer space in the ESL portable classroom during the second lunch break. They run it as a club, the same way I run volleyball or the similar to the way our devout Christian principal would run his prayer club in the 2000’s. Students who wish to pray can go out to the portable during a specific 15 - 20 minute block of time during the second nutrition break. Consequently, this doesn’t interfere with other students or learning and the kids are supervised. Some days it gets cancelled and the most devout kids will still ask to pray in the corner of the classroom during lunch.

In a nutshell

  • Prayer is not promoted, but is not eschewed at public schools
  • If possible, public schools should provide a multi-faith space for prayer.
  • We are able to provide that space because a team of teachers have volunteered to supervise it.
  • To answer the question raised in the article that “one faith is being promoted over the others” I will again point out that all are welcome to attend the prayer room. Some parents have asked about this and have also been concerned that their child is not being afforded the same opportunity. We have made it clear that the prayer space is multi-faith and that their children are welcome to attend it. They are not told what to do when they are in that space. They are, however, expected to be reasonably quiet and respectful. So far, no children of other faiths have chosen to take advantage of the opportunity we provide.

At my school, about 15-20 students from several grade levels choose to use the space. That is less than 5% of our total Muslim population. This reinforces the fact that different people choose to celebrate their faith in different ways. Far too often, I hear people make blanket statements about “Muslims” - as if to suggest that 1.5 billion practitioners of a faith operate as a unified block. The same applies to Christians. I have met Christians along a broad continuum, from those who are fervently and vocally devout, to those that attend church only on major holidays, to those that only identify as such on a census ballot, but do not practice their faith. The same is true in the Muslim world.

My Hope

I hope that my perspective can reach as many eyes as the Dean Daniel’s March 13 piece that inspired it. At last count, it had 95,000 shares. I would welcome him (if he exists) and anyone to contact me. In a perfect world, I would have him to meet my students to see first-hand how unique, smart, kind, funny, caring and wonderful they are...even the Muslims who seem to concern him so much.

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