MONTREAL””The decision to close a high school pool to give three Muslim girls a private swimming class is stoking debate over the place of faith in Quebec’s public institutions.

At issue is the practice known as “reasonable accommodation” for religious views, one that’s increasingly common in a city that’s home to most of Quebec’s immigrants.

Parents say the decision by Commission Scolaire Marie-Victorin, with more that 40,000 students in 80 schools, risks encouraging “segregation in the name of religion.”

The board argues it is simply respecting provisions of a recent Supreme Court judgment on wearing Sikh kirpans (ceremonial daggers) in classrooms that set limits on restricting religious rights.

The most recent chapter in the argument centres on a request from three Muslim students at Antoine-Brossard high school in the South Shore suburb of Brossard, who asked to be excused from swimming class because their religion rejects sharing a pool with men.

The board demurred, saying children couldn’t beg off the requirements, which are part of a physical education curriculum, but could take the swimming test needed to pass the course under special circumstances.

So last Friday morning, the pool was closed to all other students and tables were placed in front of the windows so the three girls would be shielded from view. A female teacher administered the test, aided by another female school employee.

The problem with all that, says the parental representative on Antoine-Brossard’s “conseil d’établissement” (parent-teacher council) is that, when the question was brought to the council, it unanimously decided to demand the board shelve that decision.

Fouad Cheddadi, a Muslim whose children attend the school, told reporters this week, “This is a decision that makes a lot of parents uncomfortable. The main goal of school is to provide secular instruction to children. It’s a place where all cultures meet.”

School board officials referred all questions to its executive director François Houde, who could not be reached for comment.

Houde told La Presse, “This issue is closed,” noting the board is constrained by the Constitution and by high court rulings that spell out “an obligation to find a reasonable accommodation.”

The board notes many other public pools in Montreal, especially in areas with large Jewish, Muslim and Sikh populations, have time set aside specifically for women.

Last week’s swim test is just the latest incident illustrating Quebec’s recent struggles to reconcile constitutionally guaranteed religious freedoms ”” especially those exercised by minorities ”” with the increasing secularization of public institutions.


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