EDUCATION

Ritual disagreement

The emotional issue of mandatory prayer

ANN FINLAYSON October 24 1988
EDUCATION

Ritual disagreement

The emotional issue of mandatory prayer

ANN FINLAYSON October 24 1988

Ritual disagreement

The emotional issue of mandatory prayer

EDUCATION

In January, 1986, Christopher Tait, then a 17-year-old high-school student in MacGregor, Man., complained to the province's human-rights commission

about the rules governing the prayers that were said every day at his school. Tait, who described himself as an atheist, said that he did not wish to listen to a broadcast of the Lord’s Prayer in his classroom each morning. Nor did he want to exercise the only alternative permitted under the rules, which was to stand in the hall until the prayer and other opening exercises in the class were finished. School authorities worked out a temporary compromise, allowing Tait to go to another room during prayers. At the time, said Tait, “I thought we would have the issue resolved before I graduated from high school.” But 2½ years later, Tait, now a third-year political science student at the University of Winnipeg, is still waiting for a final decision in his case—and for a resolution to the emotionally charged debate over the place of prayer in the province’s public schools.

Mandatory school prayers are a contentious and emotional issue in Ontario and British Columbia as well. In both provinces, critics have launched court actions under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, arguing that religious rituals have no place in public

classrooms and that the alternative—allowing students to leave the room during prayers and Bible readings—is discriminatory and painful for the students involved. Said John Stinson, director of the Manitoba Association for Rights and Liberties, which plans to file a constitutional challenge on the issue this month: “It is usually kids from visible minority families who choose to opt out—kids who are often singled out anyway—and it is very harmful to them.”

The Ontario Court of Appeal accepted that argument last month when it struck down a regulation under the provincial Education Act that compelled school boards to hold daily religious exercises. The court ruled that mandatory prayer is an infringement of the right to freedom of conscience and religion and shows an “insensitive approach” to minority groups. The court noted that no matter how sensitive school officials are toward children who do not want to participate in prayers, “peer pressures” exist on those who do not participate.

The Ontario action, initiated by a group of Sudbury parents in April, 1985, was supported by the League for Human Rights of B’nai Brith Canada, the Canadian Jewish Congress and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Lawyers for the Sudbury board of education

and the Ontario government argued that most Ontarians want daily prayer and that the regulation did not infringe on charter guarantees of religious freedom. Even if it did, argued government lawyer Blenus Wright, mandatory prayer should still be legal under the charter as a reasonable limit in a “free and democratic society.” However, the province decided last week not to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Although daily prayer has technically been compulsory in British Columbia since 1944, most schools have abandoned the practice. But others continue to hold daily prayers, and some institutions in the province designate themselves as Christian schools. Now, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association is fighting the prayers provision of the province’s School Act on behalf of two parents. One of them is Joan Russow, who moved from Vancou-

ver to Victoria in 1981 and found that her three children were required to take part in morning prayer and Bible readings in their elementary-school classrooms. Russow said that she decided to launch a challenge because she believes that mandatory prayer violates Canada’s multicultural nature. John Dixon, president of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, said that his organization plans to proceed with a challenge before the B.C. Supreme Court this week, despite assurances from B.C. Education Minister Anthony Brummet that the requirement will be dropped from the act when it is revised next spring.

It could be many years more before the issues before courts across the country are resolved. In the meantime, school boards in Manitoba, where boards have the right to opt out of the Schools Act’s required scripture readings and the Lord’s Prayer in classrooms each day, will continue to make their own rules. In Ontario, the situation is more complicated. The regulation requiring school prayer was the only clause in the Education Act that made religious exercises mandatory. When the courts struck that clause down, the province chose to rely on another optional clause in the act that local authorities can implement. That clause specifies that opening or closing exercises must include 0 Canada and may include God Save the Queen or other elements. That, declared Ontario’s minister of education, Christopher Ward, is sufficient to allow school boards to keep prayers in their schools if they wish to, providing that “any readings or prayers reflect the multicultural realities and traditions of Ontario society” and one religion is not given “a position of primacy.” But for Tait—and others like him—even that may prove to be too much classroom religion.

ANN FINLAYSON

with

DEBORRA SCHUG

in

Vancouver

and

DOUG SMITH

in Winnipeg