Friday, March 24, 2006

Muslim students cheered by human rights ruling
Three-year dispute; Engineering school must accommodate those who wish to pray

The Gazette
Thursday, March 23, 2006
Muslim leaders were cautiously optimistic yesterday after the Quebec Human Rights Commission told a Montreal engineering school it must allow Muslim students to pray in dignity, though it is not obliged to provide them their own special prayer space.
In 2003, 113 Muslim students filed a human rights complaint against the Ecole de technologie superieure after it blocked Muslim students, who must pray five times daily, from doing so in school hallways and stairwells.
"These students have a right to pray and the school has the responsibility, the duty, to accommodate them," commission president Marc-Andre Dowd told reporters. Students should not have to decide between school and their religion, he added.
After controversy erupted, ETS relented, letting students pray in stairwells and hallways, but more needs to be done to accommodate them, Dowd said.
Citing the Quebec charter of rights, the commission ruled ETS must ensure students can "pray, on a regular basis, in conditions that respect their right to the safeguard of their dignity." ETS could, for example, let them use an empty classroom or a gymnasium, Dowd said.
The school argued that as a secular institution it is not obliged to give students prayer space. But the commission said ETS's secular status does not relieve it of its duty to accommodate the Muslim students.
Dowd said ETS is not obliged to set aside a special room for them, a request of some but not all ETS Muslim students. Compelling ETS to have such a room would cause "undue hardship, as it could lead to similar demands from students of other denominations," he said.
The commission gave the school, part of the Universite du Quebec network, 60 days to solve the problem. If the commission is not satisfied with ETS's response, it may take the case to the Quebec Human Rights Tribunal, a judicial body with the power to order the school to act.
The commission said ETS did not discriminate when it refused to fund a Muslim student group and posted a pictogram near sinks barring foot-washing, a pre-prayer practice of some Muslims.
The panel also said it did not have enough evidence to rule on a complaint about an ETS administrator quoted in a newspaper saying students who didn't like ETS policy could go elsewhere.
The complaint was filed by the Centre for Research-Action on Race Relations and the Muslim Council of Montreal. Council president Salam Elmenyawi said the groups are studying the decision and will comment today.
Elmenyawi said the decision appears to answer the key demand - that students' "religious beliefs be reasonably accommodated in a dignified way." In the long run, that may mean a space shared with other groups, he added, noting Muslim students never said they wanted their own space.
He said he is disappointed the decision took three years and that the commission didn't deal with a demand for compensation for ETS's "disrespectful" treatment of Muslim students.
ETS spokesperson Denis Morin said empty classrooms are already available for Muslims who want to pray. "When they aren't being used, any student can use them - they're not locked," he said.
Morin said ETS will study the decision and will comment on Monday.
A group of Muslim students filed a similar human-rights complaint against McGill University in December after the school took away its prayer space. That case is pending.
Nafay Choudhury, president of McGill's Muslim Students' Association, said he hopes the ETS decision persuades McGill to offer students a quiet, clean prayer space.
McGill spokesperson Jennifer Robinson said the school is reviewing the ETS decision.
© The Gazette (Montreal) 2006

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