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Peel school board changes controversial decision on Muslim prayers

The issue at Peel raises questions about religious accommodation and how much influence a secular school board should have over prayer.

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The Peel District School Board is reversing its controversial decision that forced Muslim students to use a limited number of pre-approved sermons for their Friday prayers.

A revised procedure released on Friday allows students either to deliver their own sermons or choose from several pre-written ones approved by local imams. School trustees will vote on the new proposal at their meeting on Tuesday.

"We have listened to the voices of Peel students and principals," the board's director of education, Tony Pontes, wrote in the revised report. "Peel students have spoken respectfully about the importance of their faith."

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The issue at Peel raises questions about religious accommodation and how much influence a secular school board should have over prayer. Some school boards in the Greater Toronto Area, for example, have allowed students to be exempted based on religious beliefs from classes, including music and art, but only as a last resort and after failing to reach a compromise with parents.

In the fall, the Peel board brought in new procedure that required Muslim students to choose from six pre-written sermons at the Jummah prayers, the communal worship in which devout Muslims participate every Friday. That means students leading Friday prayers for their Muslim peers at their high school could use only the sermons (khutbahs) approved by the school board.

Before, students wrote their own sermons or could one that was approved by a school administrator.

The Peel board said it created the procedure and implemented it in September to make the prayers more consistent across its schools.

Spokesman Ryan Reyes said that in the past, principals had to approve student-written sermons. He said that proved challenging because sermons were in Arabic and contained religious content. The board worked with local religious leaders for more than a year to develop the sermons for the Friday prayers, Mr. Reyes said.

But Muslim students and community members told local trustees the decision to limit their sermons violated their right to religious freedom. The board said it planned to work with local imams to add more sermons.

"They were concerned that it was restricting their religious freedoms and their freedom of speech," trustee Nokha Dakroub said. "They felt stigmatized by the policy."

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Ms. Dakroub said she shared those worries.

"I had a lot of concerns. I did see where the students were coming from, in terms of their freedom of religion and their freedom of expression," she said. "It didn't feel right to me, because it felt like we were putting in place specific rules for one particular group of people and it didn't seem fair."

She added: "It didn't sit right with me."

The board put the procedure on hold and conducted a review.

The Peel board said it looked at procedures in neighbouring Greater Toronto Area school districts and found that Jummah prayers are accommodated on Fridays and staff do not review students' sermons. "These boards also confirm that there have been no significant issues as a result of their procedures for Jummah prayer," Mr. Pontes wrote in his revised report.

Under the old procedure, a staff members supervised the prayer services. That will continue under the revised procedure.

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Ms. Dakroub said she was pleased school board staff listened to students and the community and have recommended appropriate changes.

"I'm very pleased at this point, because it sounds like the board staff were able to go back to the community and listen to what the concerns were," she said.

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Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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