Dan Gardner is the New York Times best-selling author of Risk, Future Babble, Superforecasting (co-authored with Philip E. Tetlock), and How Big Things Get Done (co-authored with Bent Flyvbjerg). His books have been published in 26 countries and 20 languages. Prior to becoming an author, Gardner was an award-winning investigative journalist. More >

Praying In School? Heaven Forbid!

Well done, concerned citizens. For weeks, in vast numbers, across the nation, you expressed outrage that a public school in Toronto permits Muslim students to pray for half an hour each Friday. In the school cafeteria. A cafeteria built with tax dollars. Your tax dollars. Clearly, this offends the great Canadian constitutional commitment to the separation of church and state, which doesn't exist, and you said so in no uncertain terms. Religion has no place in a public school! Not even the cafeteria! Stand away from the chili con carne and french fries, Imam! Get those Korans out of our proud agora! But there were worse revelations to come. Intrepid journalists subsequently discovered that other schools, including some in Ottawa, permit Muslim students to pray on school premises, which is, needless to say, an affront to the very principles on which this nation wasn't founded. "The practising of Islamic prayers in Ottawa public schools must stop immediately," thundered an editorialist at a newspaper chain renowned for keeping a close watch on the strange doings of the Mohammedans. Somewhat awkwardly, Christians, Jews, and others are also permitted to pray on school premises. They've been doing it for years. But this is clearly different. Somehow or other. How? Look, the angry public reaction to swarthy people uttering strange incantations in their heathen tongue is motivated by the highest secular principle. It's not that they're Muslim. Really. And to prove it, well, OK, no prayers for anybody! Sorry, Christians. See? No bigotry. It's the same as the flap about civil arbitration back in 2005. For more than a decade, the government of Ontario had a system that permitted Orthodox Christians and Jews to settle family disputes according to their faith's rules provided the outcome did not violate generally applicable laws and principles. Not controversial in the least. Then a handful of Muslims asked to do the same, there was a mighty backlash, and the government scrapped the whole system. No bigotry there, either. So let's not hear anyone suggest that the widespread revulsion at Muslim students doing something that other students had done without the slightest public concern has something to do with xenophobia and bigotry. That could not be more untrue. No, this is a matter of the highest principle. We are a pluralistic society. It would be wrong to use tax dollars taken from all citizens to, in effect, subsidize a particular faith, and it's essential that students of all faiths come together in public schools and learn to be good citizens of a diverse society, which can only happen if religious worship is kept out of schools. Even permitting students to spend 30 minutes once a week praying in a room normally devoted to the worshipful dispensation of chili con carne and french fries is a threat to our civil order. You want us to become Yugoslavia? I don't think so. So keep religion out of publicly funded schools. Unless they're Catholic. What? Oh, that's different. Totally different. How? I'm not sure. But it must be. The last provincial election was practically a referendum on a Progressive Conservative proposal to extend public funding to non-Catholic religious schools. Our esteemed premier, the Right Honourable Dalton McGuinty, railed against that idea on precisely the grounds cited here. Pluralistic society. Bring kids of all faiths together. Fund religious schools and you get Yugoslavia. Et cetera. McGuinty almost never mentioned Catholic schools. At one point, he even wrote an op-ed extolling the virtues of public schools in a pluralistic society without even once using the word "Catholic," which is particularly odd when you consider that his kids go to Catholic schools, his wife teaches in a Catholic school, and he himself was educated in a Catholic school. McGuinty won that election soundly. So it seems that a very large portion of the population of Ontario is satisfied that the public funding of Catholic religious schools is completely different than the public funding of other religious schools, for reasons no one seems able to articulate. But Muslims praying once a week in a public school cafeteria? An outrage of the highest order. Again, I assure suspicious minds this has nothing whatsoever to do with xenophobia and bigotry. Many others can make the same assurance. I know. I get e-mails from them whenever I write a column mentioning Muslims. These concerned citizens begin by stating with great conviction that they harbour not the slightest ill will toward our brown brothers and their inscrutable ways. But did you know that Muslims have a holy book rife with hateful passages? That they discriminate against women? That many are terrorists? That they're out-breeding us? And did you know Mohammed was a pedophile? Of course it doesn't bother these concerned citizens that Ontario now funds an entire school system run by a faith whose holy book is rife with hateful passages, that discriminates against women, that has a nightmarish history of violence, that outnumbers all others, and that has considerable experience with pedophiles. Because that's different, you see. Why? Never mind. Just remember: This has nothing to do with xenophobia and bigotry. *My Wednesday column was inaccurate. I wrote that the Conservative government hasn't changed the principles of the Corrections and Conditional Release Act. That's true. But it tried to and likely will again. The proposed changes are modest and I suspect they will make little practical difference, though that's not certain. We shall see, unfortunately.