Religious Accommodations In Public Schools

In a pluralist, free society any and every ideology must be tolerated insofar that the ideology does not incite violence or hatred to others.  Obviously this is a gray area when it comes to religion, as even in the big three (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam) there are sections of scripture that could be interpreted as inciting violence or hatred to others.  As North American (Western?) society becomes more diversified, there is an ever-growing focus on accommodation of religions and religious practices in the context of human rights.  In 1996, the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) released their policy on accommodation of religious observances.

The OHRC policy guideline outlines the following:

The Code provides the right to be free from discrimination, and there is a general corresponding duty to protect the right: the “duty to accommodate. ”The duty arises when a person’s religious beliefs conflict with a requirement, qualification or practice. The code imposes a duty to accommodate based on the needs of the group of which the person making the request is a member.  Accommodation may modify a rule or make an exception to all or part of it for the person requesting accommodation.” (Policy on Creed and the Accommodation of Religious Observances, Ontario Human Rights Commission, Oct. 20, 1996. p. 5) Creed is interpreted to mean ‘religious creed’ or ‘religion.’ It is defined as a professed system and confession of faith, including both beliefs and observances or worship. A belief in a God or gods, or a single supreme being or deity is not a requisite. Religion is broadly accepted by the Commission to include, for example, non-deistic bodies of faith, such as the spiritual faiths/practices of aboriginal cultures, as well as bona fide newer religions (assessed on a case-by-case basis).

Following from this guideline, the Ministry of Education in Ontario released a policy memorandum in 2013 (that replaced one issued in 2009)  for developing and implementing inclusive education policies in Ontario schools.  There are a number of areas of accommodations that must be considered, including:  observance of religious holidays; prayer; dietary requirements and fasting; religious attire (including modesty in gym classes); participation in curricular activities; opening and closing exercises. Particularly contentious issues with accommodations centers around curriculum and curricular activities.  For example,some Muslim parents request that their child(ren) be removed from the classroom when music is part of the classroom activities.  Here is what the York Region District School Board’s policy says on the matter:

Music Beliefs and Practices Music is not in itself forbidden; it all depends on the type of music, its use, its instruments, and the persons involved. The use of string and wind instruments is prohibited. The only sanctioned musical instruments are certain percussion instruments, specifically the baseless drum, which are usually limited to weddings and religious celebrations. Songs and lyrics cannot conflict with Islamic teachings and morals.

School Accommodation There is a wide spectrum of views related to music. There are some Muslims who find music incompatible with their Islamic orientation. These parents may wish their children to be exempted from any participation in the music curriculum.

Music: Avoid teaching units that are solely music-based. Singing, clapping, and snapping fingers are Islamically viable alternatives which would allow students to demonstrate rhythm and the performing and creating requirements of the curriculum.

Singing: Appropriateness of song lyrics should be taken into account, and religious exemptions provided, when necessary. For example, unaccompanied songs about the purpose of human life, the well-being of society, and the appreciation of nature could be acceptable to families requesting accommodation.

Across all religions, some parents request that their children be exempted from lessons relating to human sexuality particularly with issues related to homosexuality.  I wrote in a previous post of the lawsuit that was launched by Dr. Steve Tourloukis against the Hamilton School Board for not informing him about the sexual education curriculum that was being taught to his children.  Tourloukis also wants to be informed about lessons that relate to environmental issues, LGBT issues, abortion, and birth control.  It would not surprise me if he, and other (Christian, Muslim, Jewish) fundamentalists would seek exemption from the teaching of evolution in the class room.  Would accommodation be granted?  What about accommodating young-earth Creationists in science class?  Where would the line be drawn you think?

Some other accommodations that are outlined include:  not extending invitations Jehovah’s Witnesses to participate in festivities or social functions; allowing Jehovah Witnesses and rastafarians to not participate in activities promoting nationalism such as standing for the national anthem; Rastafari females may request to be allowed to refrain from classroom cooking activities during their menstrual period; Brahmin Hindu boys may request showering alone in gym class; students who are fasting may be exempt from swim class (Why?  Because of the possibility of the ingestion of water!); the wearing of the Kirpan by Khalsa Sikhs.

You read these policies and guidelines and you realize how bizarre and silly these doctrines and rituals are, and they make god(s) seem so petty. God is paying attention to what you wear, or what you eat, or when and how often you pray. But God does not seem to be paying attention to children who are dying of starvation, or AIDs, or cancer. Good grief!

On a practical note, can you imagine if every parent draws up their particular lists of do(s) and don’t(s) based on their interpretation of their particular religious faith what that would mean for the classroom?  Teaching would quickly become untenable.  When children have to be accommodated it usually means being taken out of the classroom.  This puts a strain on the school as the children need to be supervised, and there needs to be some place for the children to go.  As well, it places a significant strain on the teacher as the teacher not only needs to keep track of which child should be exempt from which lesson or activity but the teacher must also rework the curriculum to  ensure each child is  getting the same information and benefit from the curriculum.

Based on the Ontario Human Rights Commission policy guideline, the policies and guidelines established by the Ministry of Education, and the policies and guidelines of the various School Boards parents and students are entitled to accommodations based on their religious beliefs.  We will no doubt continue to see an increase in requests for accommodations and perhaps more lawsuits like Tourloukis’ that will place burden on our public educational system.  It is going to be very interesting where we end up drawing the line in accommodating religious beliefs in the classroom.

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