Religion shouldn't undermine education

Winnipeg school board should deny student request to opt out of music, co-ed gym class

Winnipeg’s Louis Riel School Division (LRSD) has been approached by a group of new Canadian parents who want their children exempted from certain elementary school classes.

No, Manitoba’s premier has not adopted Dalton McGuinty’s proposal for anal sex lectures for tweens; these parents want their children removed from music and co-ed physical education classes. According to superintendent Terry Borys, the Muslim parents are concerned about their kids participating in classes involving singing and musical instruments, as well as mixed-gender gym classes. “The families accept physical education,” Borys told the Winnipeg Free Press, “as long as the boys and girls have separate classes.”

A local Muslim leader interviewed by the Free Press said there is no religious reason why these kids should be exempted from the classes. “My first concern would be, who are these new immigrants talking to?” he said. “This is the first time I am hearing this — I’m not very happy about it.” He added that while music can be controversial for some in the community, those people are generally in the minority.

Still, the request is being seriously considered by members of the LRSD, who have already consulted with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission and proposed the idea that students complete a writing project in lieu of participating in music classes.

Of course, this type of religious accommodation in secular schools is not new. Religious students have long been able to request exemption from sexual education programs, for example. Catholic school boards in Ontario (which are publicly funded) don’t even have to teach the same sexual health curriculum that is mandated for other boards.  And at this point, the concept seems nothing but silly and tired. How can educators and policy makers preach the unequivocal value of the provincial curriculum, while at the same time resign to “Well, I guess STI prevention lessons aren’t that important”?

Public school curricula are specifically formulated (at least on paper) to provide a well-rounded education while promoting Canadian values such as equality of the sexes. These values should not be subject to religious accommodation. Many districts—the Toronto District School Board, for example—have developed certain policies for dealing with certain religious clashes. TDSB guidelines state that, “While the Board works to create a school system free from religious discrimination, this freedom is not absolute.” It continues: “If a parent/guardian/ caregiver asks for his or her child to be exempt from any discussion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or same-sex-family issue, the request cannot be granted because it violates the TDSB Human Rights Policy.”

So you can close your eyes and plug your ears if you want to, but you’re gonna have to hear about how gay people are entitled to the same rights as you. Even if you’re religious. Sorry. The same idea can and should be applied to the Winnipeg parents’ request for segregated gym classes. Granted, I understand why girls and boys are sometimes separated for physical education in upper years; no one really wants to be going through puberty and doing squats beside a pal of the opposite gender, after all. Plus, as boys and girls develop they diverge in terms of strengths and physical abilities. It makes sense that they would be separated when playing sports, competing in races, relays, etc. But the same isn’t true for little boys and girls. Indeed, it can take nothing more than a bad haircut for one to be confused for the other. Separating girls and boys for physical education during the elementary years sends the wrong message about gender equality; at that age, drawing gender lines is as arbitrary as separating kids based on hair colour. All it does is reinforce difference, and emphasize the idea that girls and boys are not equal. Perhaps more subtle than the sexual orientation example, but important nonetheless.

Allowing students to opt out of music class, on the other hand, doesn’t really upset Canadian values (after all, we did produce Justin Bieber, so what does that say?) but it does undermine the self-professed value of public education. The Winnipeg school board believes learning music is an integral aspect of a well-rounded education, and so, has included it as mandatory in its elementary school curriculum. Parents, on the whole, seem to agree. To allow students to opt out for religious reasons is to forfeit the contention that music is important for growth, just as to allow students to sit out of sex-ed is to concede that learning about birth control is of limited importance, only appropriate for some students. If the Winnipeg board wants to maintain confidence in its program, it should stand by its curriculum.

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