After stating that a room dedicated to prayer should above all be accessible to all students, regardless of their faith or gender, the Minister of Education, Bernard Drainville, changed his mind. On April 5, he promised to send a directive to all school service centers to prohibit the installation of rooms intended for prayer in the classrooms. Could there be any elsewhere in the school? No, his office said. The directive will apply to all premises and will respect all the laws of Quebec in force, we promise.

At the initiative of the Parti Québécois (PQ), parliamentarians adopted a motion last week stipulating that “the establishment of places of prayer, regardless of confession, in the premises of a public school goes to the ‘against the principle of secularism’. Québec solidaire (QS) then clarified that it was open to a “meditation” room open to students of all religious denominations and those who do not.

On the program Tout le monde en parle on Sunday, Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) spokesperson Marwah Rizqy was categorical: “The school, we want to make sure [that it is] a place that is neutral for everyone. This is not to say that we prefer one religion or that we do not want [another]. We don’t want any of them in the schools, and that’s the way it should be,” she said.

Under the Liberal mandate of Philippe Couillard, from 2014 to 2018, the government adopted the Act to promote respect for the religious neutrality of the State and aims in particular to provide a framework for accommodation requests for religious reasons in certain organizations, better known as “Law 62”. This law defines the criteria to be followed in the case of a request for accommodation concerning an elementary or secondary student. The law provides that decision makers must ensure that they do not compromise:

They must also be able to provide educational services.

However, various legislative changes have been made in recent years in the area of ​​secularism. The Act respecting the secularism of the State (known as “Bill 21”), which enshrined the principle of secularism in the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, did not, however, repeal Bill 62 adopted under the liberals. To date, the Basic school regulation for preschool, elementary and secondary education also provides that “spiritual” animation is part of the complementary services offered to students.

How could Bernard Drainville go about banning prayer rooms across the school system? The question divides the experts.

In the case of schools where such premises have been set up, it is not necessarily a question of reasonable accommodation, recalls Louis-Philippe Lampron, professor at the Faculty of Law at Laval University. Reasonable accommodation is a legal concept that meets specific criteria. In the case of Laval schools, it could be a case-by-case agreement between students and their school administration.

If the Minister of Education wants to ban any place dedicated to prayer in the future, the directive could be challenged. The National Council of Canadian Muslims has also said that it will read it carefully. “If we see that it violates the rights of individuals, we will take the necessary remedies,” said its president, Stephen Brown.

According to Lampron, the government might be tempted to argue that its State Secularism Act embraces more than the neutrality obligations imposed on state agents (including teachers). “What worries me a lot about the direction this debate is taking is the fact that there is a lot of hard to verify or unverifiable information floating around. It really looks like what led to the Bouchard-Taylor commission,” he worries.

Dia Dabby, of UQAM’s Department of Legal Sciences, believes that a “public educational institution cannot unilaterally refuse any request for accommodation” and that a “national directive could not TO DO “.

“The logic with which Minister Bernard Drainville operates goes against the operation of reasonable accommodation in the education system, which operates on a case-by-case basis. Having a unilateral directive ignores all the work that has been done on the ground on this point. It’s going with a huge hammer, and it’s really the most unsightly thing you could do in this industry,” she said.

Robert Leckey, Dean of the Faculty of Law at McGill University, recalls that the Secular State Act “was about the supposed need for neutrality on the part of those in positions of authority, on the assumption that they embody the state”. According to him, the idea that “this law should also extend to prayer by [students] represents a major change.”

Micheline Labelle, professor emeritus in the sociology department at UQAM, believes that Quebec could reopen “Bill 21” if it must be specified that secularism in schools means that prayer rooms can be banned. According to her, the demands for places of worship in schools are analogous to the challenge to the State Secularism Act. They come, she adds, from “fundamentalist Muslims” who are leading a parallel “radical challenge” to the law on secularism in the Superior Court.

“Using charters and laws to advance religious causes has been called the return of religion to the public arena for a while. This is worrying, because it divides the citizens. Quebec fought for the deconfessionalization of schools,” she said.

Moreover, Ms. Labelle finds it very hard to see how students of different religious denominations could pray together in the same room: “I see very little how student activists, because they are activists, would put up with that. That wouldn’t solve the problem for the most fundamentalist portion in each group who wouldn’t want to find themselves in the presence of women, for example. It would be a general accommodation, yes, but a little naive. »

La Presse was able to confirm that the demand for places of prayer in public secondary schools in Quebec is a new phenomenon.

“It may be that in the past there have been one or two requests in the schools, but it has not come to our ears. But there, it came to our ears because there was still a growing number of requests from students of the Muslim faith, “explained Yves Michel Volcy, director general of the Laval school service center.

For the Mont-de-La Salle secondary school alone, where a meditation room was open from March 31 to April 4, Mr. Volcy reports about sixty student requests.

“All students had the right to frequent the room,” he said. The boys and the girls could enter the room at the same time, but what we understood was that the girls settled in one place in the room, and the boys, in another place. »

Was there a concerted movement to call for the opening of these prayer classes? Does this move coincide with Ramadan where young people can be a bit more pious? “It would be risky for me, as the first person in charge of the organization, to make a trial of intention,” replied the director.

That said, this phenomenon has partly defused since this news, reported by Cogeco News on April 3, sparked a controversy that went all the way to the National Assembly.

In all, it has been possible to identify nine secondary schools in Greater Montreal where prayer rooms have appeared: Rive-Nord secondary school, in Bois-des-Filion, and Mont-de-La Salle secondary school, in Laval, and seven secondary schools located in Montérégie.

Two of these schools, in Bois-des-Filion and Laval, have already put an end to the practice of prayer. The other seven are part of the Grandes-Seigneuries school service center, in the western part of the South Shore (Châteauguay, Candiac, Saint-Rémi, Mercier, La Prairie, Saint-Constant, Napierville, Sainte-Catherine).

“In connection with various requests from our students, if premises are available, seven of our twelve secondary schools allow their use to meet the needs of meditation identified,” said Hélène Dumais, Deputy Director of the General Secretariat and Communications Department.

It should be noted that all of these schools are in the Montreal area, but not on the island itself.