Over the past few months, a “mosque” in Toronto has inspired quite a hubbub in the blogosphere and Canadian press, even prompting demonstrations, including some in September. As in many mosques, the genders are segregated, with males sitting in the front and females in the back, but it is the location of the “mosque” — a public school — that initiated the controversy. The Valley Park Middle School basically converts its cafeteria to a temporary mosque in which Muslim students hold Friday (jum’ah) prayers.
The arrangement at Valley Park has triggered a heated discussion that offers an opportunity for Canadians to reconsider the appropriate boundary between church — or mosque — and state, and for Americans to be reminded of what works well within their legal system that draws a fairly robust line between the two.
Transforming the lunchroom into what has been called a “mosqueteria” on Fridays reportedly was a response to a sizable portion of the school’s Muslim-majority student body (around 80%) leaving to attend a local mosque, not returning promptly thereafter, and missing a lot of class time. To address the issue, the school’s principal, Nickolas Stefanoff, “revived” a similar program used by the school several years earlier. The meeting minutes of the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) from November 24, 2008, describe the initiative under “other business,” which ironically references another program aimed at raising the confidence and self-esteem of girls at school. (Perhaps what transpires in the cafeteria on Fridays is not helping.)
Though it has been operating for the past three years, the “mosqueteria” came to wider public attention recently when the Blazing Cat Fur blog covered the story, including complaints reportedly from parents who disapprove of the practice. While a religious service taking place in a public school started the controversy, it is the disturbing image of the gender-segregated cafeteria — with boys at the front, girls separated by a barrier and far behind them, and menstruating girls excluded at the back — that fueled the fire and sparked opposition from across the political spectrum.
Prominent among the myriad objections is that, by occurring within a public school, the services create the appearance of state endorsement and possible pressure for other students to conform. Further, while a person’s right to free exercise of religion should be supported even if it includes gender discrimination, which many abhor, it becomes another matter entirely when carried out under the auspices of the state in a public school. At that point free exercise butts heads with equal protection. However, “fixing” the gender segregation problem alone would just spawn another: government entanglement in religion and interference with free exercise. Finally, denying Muslims the right to hold prayer services because some aspect of them is objectionable, but allowing other religions to proceed, introduces the specter of discrimination.
Each of the above concerns has been raised in the debate surrounding the “mosqueteria.” But what is the solution?