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Lord's prayer in classrooms and freedom of religion.

In Saskatoon elementary schools, students of non-Christian faith felt awkward and uncomfortable when elementary school classes and assemblies opened with the recital of the Lord's prayer. Such students were often chided by teachers or other students for not participating. One child was reprimanded for reciting a non-Christian prayer.

In some schools, three or four students would go and stand in the hallway as if being punished during the prayer recital. In a number of Saskatoon schools, Bible readings took place in the classroom. For more than 40 years, however, the Saskatoon Board of Education stubbornly refused to change its policy on the Lord's prayer and Bible readings. A number of parents challenged that policy by means of a complaint under the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. The parents argued that the school policy offended freedom of religion and the right to an education without discrimination on the basis of religion. The Saskatoon school authorities defended the practice with the argument, among others, that a majority of parents favoured the Lord's prayer in schools.

The Human Rights Commission referred the complete complaint to a Board of Inquiry which heard evidence and submissions from parents, students, school authorities, and a number of intervenors. The Board of Inquiry upheld the parents' complaint and found that the Saskatoon School Board had interfered with the complainants' right to freedom of religious practices and denied their children's right of education without discrimination because of religion.

So, just what is freedom of religion? Perhaps the best description can be found in the words of a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. In a landmark case known as R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., Chief Justice Brian Dickson observed

"The essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.... Freedom in a broad sense embraces both the absence of coercion and constraint."

He also added the further comment that, "equally protected ... are expressions and manifestations of religious non-belief and refusals to participate in religious practice."

Courts in the provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia have decided that the discriminatory use of the Lord's prayer is illegal. A distinctive feature of the Saskatchewan case was a constitutional issue peculiar to the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. In 1905 when those two provinces were carved out of the North-West Territories, the Saskatchewan Act and the Alberta Act created some constitutional protection for certain religious practices in schools. In the case of Saskatchewan, the Board of Inquiry concluded that although the Saskatchewan Act did excuse discrimination by use of the Lord's prayer, the actual practices complained of in Saskatoon did not conform to the requirements of the Saskatchewan Act and, therefore, could not be excused on that basis.

It is no justification to say that the majority of parents might support the recitation of the Lord's prayer in the classroom. Human rights typically involve someone asserting an interest or a right that is contrary to the prevailing view. Human rights are designed to protect each of us from the "tyranny of the majority".

In Alberta, the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Act provides that discrimination on the basis of religion is unlawful in the areas of public notices, access to accommodation, services customarily available to the public, employment practices, and employment advertising. A 1996 amendment in the Alberta law means that "religious beliefs" includes native spirituality. Past decisions and interpretations of the Alberta legislation have dealt with the wearing of a turban, a kirpan, time off from work to observe holy days for a particular religious faith, and an unmarried Catholic School teacher dismissed because she became pregnant.

Public schools are the place where Alberta children learn to work and play with others of different religions. This unique role of public schools in promoting tolerance and acceptance was underscored in the 1984 final report of the Alberta Committee on Tolerance and Understanding chaired by Senator Ron Ghitter. That report also recommended that Alberta school boards use the educational services of the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission to build intercultural awareness and access anti-discrimination educational programs. Over the last 3 years, the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Education Fund has distributed lottery funds to agencies and groups to underwrite projects designed to promote acceptance and tolerance.

The Saskatchewan Board of Inquiry noted with approval the approach of the Calgary Board of Education. In Calgary schools, the emphasis on religion is as a subject for study, not as a public act of worship or a manifestation of faith. The Calgary policy recognizes that acts of worship are not the function of the public school. Acts of worship such as the recitation of the Lord's prayer are not consistent with the Calgary Board of Education policy of tolerance and respect for differences in faith. Also the Board noted that in Ontario the policy on religion requires that any programs about religion must not involve indoctrination and must not give primacy to any particular religious faith.

The importance of avoiding discriminatory practices in public schools is neatly stated in the following conclussion of the Saskatchewan Board of Inquiry.

"Elementary schools are a powerful environment in which to manipulate the minds of children. Derogatory or demeaning comments or attitudes by teachers may be accepted even where they conflict with family values. It is because of the vulnerability of these children that a fair and tolerant atmosphere must be maintained within the public school system. Focusing on the dominant religion runs counter to this objective."
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Author:Dickson, Gary
Date:Oct 1, 1999
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