Canada: A User’s Guide to Religious Accommodation in Ontario Schools

Last Updated: October 19 2010
Article by Eric M. Roher

Most Read Contributor in Canada, September 2016

The Changing Face of Ontario

The social, racial and religious fabric of Ontario is changing rapidly. The 2006 Census of Canada indicated that approximately 2.7 million Ontarians identified themselves as members of the visible minority population, representing more than half of Canada's total visible minorities. Between 2001 and 2006, Ontario's visible minority population increased more than four times faster than the population as a whole.

Ontario continued to be the province of choice for more that half (52.3%) of the 1.1 million newcomers who arrived in Canada between 2001 and 2006. More than half of these newcomers will settle in areas outside of Toronto. With respect to religion, Statistics Canada reported that by 2017, about one-fifth of our population will be members of diverse faith communities, including Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism.

This change in the make-up in the Province is also reflected in our schools. In Ontario schools, increasingly the student body is made up of individuals from diverse faith communities. For example, in the Toronto Catholic District School Board, approximately 8% of the students attending its secondary schools are members of the Muslim faith.

The question arises as to whether, and to what extent, is there an obligation to provide reasonable accommodation for students and staffs' religious beliefs and practices? Should school administrators inform students and their parents and staff of their right to request accommodation for religious beliefs and practices? How far does the duty to accommodate extend? What steps should administrators in Ontario schools take regarding religious accommodation where a request is made by a student or staff member?

On June 24, 2009, the Ministry of Education released Policy/Program Memorandum No. 119 entitled "Developing and implementing equity and inclusive education policies in Ontario schools." Among other things, as part of their new equity and inclusive education policy and implementation plans, all school boards are required to include a religious accommodation guideline, which prohibits discrimination on the grounds of creed and imposes a duty to accommodate.

All school boards in Ontario were required to introduce a religious accommodation guideline in September 2010. To assist with this process, the Ontario Education Services Corporation, with input from the Ministry of Education, the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Institute for Catholic Education, among others, prepared template religious accommodation guidelines for both Public and Catholic school boards in Ontario.

School boards across Ontario recognize each individual's right to follow or not to follow religious beliefs and practices, free from discriminatory or harassing behaviours and will take all reasonable steps to provide religious accommodation to staff and to students.

School boards are committed to work with the communities they serve to foster an inclusive learning environment that promotes acceptance and protects religious freedom for all individuals. While a school board and its staff will take all reasonable steps to ensure freedom of religion consistent with the principles of the Ontario Human Rights Code, it is expected that students and their families will assist boards to understand their religious needs and will work with the board and its schools to determine appropriate and reasonable accommodation.

With respect to Catholic schools, it is recognized that the Catholic school system gives pre-eminence to the tenets of the Catholic faith, consistent with the protection afforded in the Human Rights Code, the Constitution Act, 1982 and the Canadian Charter of Rights of Freedoms.


Creed is interpreted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission as "religious creed" or "religion". It is defined as a professional system and confession of faith, including both beliefs and observances of worship.

Under the policy of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, every person has the right to be free from discrimination or harassing behaviour that is based on religion or which arises because the person who is the target of the behaviour does not share the same faith. It should also be noted that atheists and agnostics are also protected under the Code.

Creed does not include secular, moral or ethical beliefs or political convictions. The policy does not extend to religions that incite hatred or violence against other individuals or groups, or to practices and observances that purport to have a religious basis, but which contravene criminal law.

Duty to Accommodate

"Accommodation" is defined by the Ministry of Education as an adjustment made to policies, programs or practices, that enables individuals to benefit from and take part in the provision of services equally and to participate equally and perform to the best of their ability in the educational setting or workplace. The Human Rights Code imposes a duty to accommodate based on the needs of the group of which the person making the request is a member. Accommodation may modify a rule or make an exception to all or part of a rule for the person requesting accommodation.

The duty to accommodate must be provided to the point of undue hardship. In determining whether there is undue hardship, subsection 24(2) of the Code provides that reference should be made to the cost of accommodation, outside sources of funding, if any, and health and safety requirements.

Where a determination is made that an accommodation would create undue hardship, the person requesting accommodation should be given written notice, including the reason for the decision and the evidence relied upon. A determination that an accommodation will create undue hardship may carry significant liability for the school board. It should be made only with the approval of the appropriate supervisory officer or, where appropriate, the Board of Trustees.

Where a determination has been made that an accommodation would cause undue hardship, the school board should proceed to implement the next best accommodation short of undue hardship, or should consider phasing in the requested accommodation. School administration should take all reasonable steps to provide accommodation to individual members of a religious group to facilitate their religious beliefs and practices. All accommodation requests made by students or staff members should be taken seriously.

When concerns related to beliefs and practices arise in a school, collaboration among school administration, the student, family and religious community is needed in order to develop an appropriate accommodation. It is the role of school administration and school staff to ensure equity and respect for diverse religious beliefs and practices of students and staff members. However, school administrators should not be placed in the position of monitoring a child's compliance with a religious obligation or enforcing such practices. For example, it is not the responsibility of the school to enforce or monitor whether a student is performing daily prayers or wearing a head covering.

Despite the school board's commitment to accommodate, an individual may feel that he/she has been discriminated against on the basis of his/her religion. In these circumstances, the board should take reasonable and timely steps to address the unresolved issues raised by the affected person, which could include mediation involving the supervisory officer.

With respect to the process for requesting religious accommodation in a school, students should present verbal or written notice from their parents specifying their accommodation needs, including holy days on which they will be absent from school. Preferably this notice will be provided early in the school year. The notice should be made enough in advance to ensure that scheduling of major forms of evaluation, such as tests, assignments or exams, take these religious observances into consideration.

It is recommended that student handbooks and parent newsletters include information about the procedure to follow to request an accommodation for religious observance.

Similarly, a school staff member requesting accommodation should inform the administration at the beginning of the school year, to the extent possible. The absence of an employee due to religious observances should be granted as determined by the school board's religious accommodation guideline and the relevant collective agreement.

Absence for Religious Holy Days

School boards affirm and value the faith diversity in its schools. Clause 21(2)(g) of the Education Act provides that a person is excused from school attendance in observance of a "holy day by the Church or religious denomination to which he/she belongs." In this regard, all students or staff who observe religious holidays may be excused from attendance, subject to the provisions of the board's religious accommodation guideline.

An example of significant holy days include:




Lunar New Year/Chinese


Christian Good Friday

Eastern Christian

Christmas Good Friday




Rosh Hashanah (2 days)
Yom Kippur Passover (first day)






The school board recognizes the significance of prayer in religious practice. Ontario schools should make reasonable efforts to accommodate an individual's requirement for daily prayer by providing an appropriate location within the building for students and staff to participate in prayer. This may mean a quiet space in the library or an empty classroom or other room, where it is mutually satisfactory for the school and the student or staff member requesting the accommodation. In particular, accommodation may include late school arrival, early school leaving or seasonal adjustment. Adult presence with respect to prayer on school premises should be for supervision purposes only.

Dietary Restrictions

School administrators should be sensitive to the different dietary restrictions of various religious groups. This sensitivity regarding dietary restrictions should be reflected in menus provided by catering companies, snacks in elementary schools and food provided within schools, at school-sponsored activities and community events.

Breakfast and lunch programs in both secondary and elementary schools should consider relevant dietary restrictions in their menu planning. For example, Muslim and Jewish students may not eat pork products. In this regard, the availability of vegetarian options is recommended in creating an inclusive school environment.


School boards should be sensitive to religious periods of fasting. Schools should endeavour to provide appropriate space, other than cafeterias or lunchrooms, for individuals who are fasting in religious observance. Schools should also recognize that students who are fasting may need exemptions from certain physical education classes. Schools should make reasonable efforts to provide appropriate accommodations for persons who are fasting in religious observance.

Religious Dress

There are certain religious communities that require specific items of ceremonial dress. School administrators will recognize that some religious attire, which is a requirement of religious observance, may not conform to the school's dress code. Where appropriate, principals and vice-principals should reasonably accommodate students with regard to religious attire.

Religious attire that should be reasonably accommodated in Ontario schools includes:

  • Head covers, yarmulkes, turbans, Rastafarian headdress, hijab;
  • Crucifixes, Stars of David; and
  • Items of ceremonial dress.

Schools should be aware that intimidation or teasing about religious attire is a common form of harassment. The school should have policies that teasing, bullying or harassment about a person's religious attire will not be tolerated and will result in appropriate consequences.

Participation in Daily Activities

School administration should attempt to reasonably accommodate students where there is a demonstrated conflict between a specific class or curriculum and a religious requirement or observance. Where academic accommodation is requested, the school should have an informed discussion with the student's parents to understand the nature and extent of the conflict.

School administrators should make it clear during the discussion that its role is to protect students and staff from harassment and discrimination because of their religion and cultural practices. Where these conflict with school activities or curriculum, school administration should consider accommodation. It should be made clear to students and their families that the school cannot accommodate religious values and beliefs that conflict with mandated Ministry of Education and school board policies.

When an individual requests an accommodation related to the curriculum, the accommodation applies to the individual in question and not to the whole class or to classroom practices.

In discussions with students and their families, an informed, common-sense approach to questions of religion and curriculum is recommended. In many cases, these questions can be solved by an open dialogue between the school administrator and the student and his/her family.

Limits to Religious Accommodation

It should be recognized that there are limits to a school boards' ability to provide religious accommodation. The school board will limit practices or behaviour in its schools which put public safety, health or the human rights and freedoms of others at risk. In addition, the school board will limit practices and behaviours in its schools that are in contravention of other school policies.

In Catholic school boards, the right of freedom of religion is not absolute and religious accommodation is carried out in the large context of the denominational rights of Catholic schools. School administration should attempt to accommodate an individual's right to freedom of religion in a manner that not only respects the individuals' beliefs, but the principles of the Catholic Church.


Psychologist Daniel Goleman has said that there is an increasing body of research showing that students who feel connected to school – to teachers, to other students and to the school itself – do better academically.

In Ontario, there is a shared belief in the need to develop students as learners and prepare them for their role as engaged and responsible citizens. The religious accommodation guidelines that were introduced in all school boards in Ontario are important to assist students feel accepted, comfortable and connected with their individual school. In addition, the provisions around accommodation assist all students and staff in the school to recognize and celebrate diversity, tolerance and acceptance.

The Ministry of Education has indicated that equity and excellence go hand in hand. In its publication "Reach Every Student: Energizing Ontario Education", the Ministry stated: "In a truly equitable system, factors such as race, gender and socioeconomic status do not prevent students from achieving ambitious outcomes. Our experience shows that barriers can be removed when all education partners create the conditions needed for success."

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