The mayor of Brampton, Ont. is standing up to what she calls hate speech in response to outcry over religious accommodation in the city’s public schools.

In January, the Peel District School Board enacted a policy that allows Muslim students to participate in a prayer service every Friday held around midday.

On Saturday, approximately 200 people protested the policy against religious practices in public schools.

Last week, Brampton Mayor Linda Jeffrey said in a statement that she was “alarmed by the recent misinformation and hateful speech” surrounding the accommodation of Muslim prayers.

“Muslim students require a time to pray that may happen during a school day, and we must respect that - as we do any other religious requirement,” Jeffrey wrote. “The only limit on religious accommodation is undue financial burden. Letting Muslim students pray for 20 minutes in an empty space with the supervision of volunteer staff does not cause any financial hardship.”

At a meeting on Jan. 14, the school board lifted a restriction on which types of prayers can be used by Muslim students during Friday prayers. Peel public school students are now allowed to pick their own prayers and sermons rather than choose from six selections pre-approved by the school board.

But there have been calls for the board to immediately discontinue religious groups and religious congregations in schools. At the Jan. 14 school board meeting, the head of Canadian Hindu Advocacy Ron Banerjee told trustees that allowing students to choose their own prayers in school “may violate Canadian values.”

A group called Canada First said last week that they were organizing a “Walk to Oppose Religion in Schools” in Mississauga.

In an interview with CTV News Channel on Tuesday, Jeffrey said she felt compelled to speak out against the “hate and the fear-mongering that I saw in my community” in light of religious accommodation.

Jeffrey said she was trying to separate “myth from fact,” in explaining that there is no financial burden in relation to the prayer accommodation. She also noted that religious accommodation in schools is protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code’s mandate.

“I think that they feel that their children are being exposed to something that they feel strongly about,” Jeffrey said. “Nobody is disputing the fact that they can have a difference of opinion but the Ontario Human Rights Code tells us that we need to make those accommodations.”

Some have called the demonstrations against Muslim prayer in schools an act of Islamophobia, but Jeffrey would only say that “there is language that is very troubling and that’s why I put a statement out about it.”

“There’s a lot of fear,” Jeffrey said. “And I hear that in my community but what’s happening in the school boards have has happening for the last 20 years.”

She later added: “These kinds of accommodations happen throughout the school year, all the time, whether you’re a vegetarian and the food is accommodated for your religious needs.

“Some Jehovah’s Witnesses, I understand, leave when ‘O Canada’ is being sung, so there are accommodations throughout the school year, that happen in the school.”

Jeffrey said that there have been people who are “unhappy” with her statement, but also those who have thanked her for speaking out.

With files from CP24