Here is the letter I sent to the Horizon School Board regarding school prayer in Taber AB. I also sent copies to David Eggen, the Minister of Education, Premier Rachel Notley, my MLA Shannon Phillips, and the MLA for Taber, Grant Hunter. My earlier op-ed and letters to newspapers about Taber and state prayers are here and here.
Edited to add: And many thanks to Margaret Forgie, Tracy Hill, and Mrs. Dr. Jim for the proofreading, rhetorical advice and so on. Of course, I will lay the blame for any other typos, grammatical errors, or spelling mistakes on the absurdities of my native language.
Board of Trustees & School Superintendent
Horizon School Division
6302 56 Street
Dear Board Chair Marie Logan, Board Members, and Superintendent Tymensen,
I am writing to express my objections to the decision taken this spring to reinstate the recital of the Lord’s Prayer at Dr. Hamman School in Taber. I am deeply concerned with issues of freedom of religion and conscience. These matters affect our whole country and so I am motivated to write even though I do not have a child in your school division.
I fully understand that the new Prayer Policy of April 15, 2015, is permitted under the Alberta Act of 1905 and that you have attempted to make satisfactory exemptions for children whose parents prefer them not to take part. I also acknowledge your sincerity in wishing the school to be an inclusive and happy place for every student. However, there are three primary reasons I must object to the reinstatement of the prayer: 1) the obsolescence of the relevant section of the Alberta Act and its incompatibility with the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as interpreted in a number of Supreme Court cases 2) the inadequacy of alternate activities for non-Christian students 3) the discriminatory and contradictory nature of the prayer policy itself.
The Alberta Act is well over a century old. I am certain that you are aware that Canadian society was very different in 1905 from what it is today. For example, women could not vote and First Nations children could be all but kidnapped from their parents in a program of state sanctioned cultural and religious assimilation. As a province and a nation we are making great progress in addressing many forms of deeply entrenched cultural, racial, and gender discrimination. We are a far more tolerant and open society than the founders of our province could have imagined. The allowance in the Constitution for the Lord’s Prayer is a throwback to a bygone era and is not consistent with the values of this country as outlined in the Charter of Rights of Freedoms. In a number of decisions, most recently in April of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that fundamental rights of freedom of religion and conscience—including the right to hold no religious views—are violated when the state does not fulfill its duty of religious neutrality. In ruling against Saguenay City Council’s prayer ritual the Supreme Court determined that, “Sponsorship of one religious tradition by the state in breach of its duty of neutrality amounts to discrimination against all other such traditions” (Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay [City], 2015, paragraph 64). Clearly, the Alberta Act is not in accord with the Court’s interpretation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In view of the contradiction between these two parts of the Canadian Constitution, it is particularly disappointing that the Horizon School Division has opted to assert Christocentric privilege over the fundamental rights of non-Christian persons it otherwise claims to respect and protect.
The provisions made for opting out of the prayer provide no solution to this discrimination. The prayer policy requires teachers to “ensure that non-participants are treated discreetly and with respect at all times.” The June 24th online edition of the Taber Times reported that non-praying students would be given the honoured task of delivering class attendance sheets to the office during the prayer. This hardly fulfills the requirement for discretion as it clearly identifies non-participants and strikes me as a weak attempt at patronizing opponents of the prayer. Indeed, if this task is as coveted as Mr. Tymensen alleges, Christian students may well feel disadvantaged and this could lead to increased animosity. The plan is also unfeasible if there is more than one non-conformist in a class. The other proposed solution, that the prayer would be recited while seated, also accomplishes nothing as it subjects non-Christian students and teachers to a religious ritual as a condition of their education or employment. Regardless of any devotional or spiritual content, communal rituals are exercises in social power, marking the “proper” way to belong to a group. In September, the school day at Dr. Hamman School will begin with the national anthem that celebrates Canadian identity. This is to be followed by the taking of attendance, something that marks participation in the classroom community. Following these actions, the Lord’s Prayer is to be recited. This symbolically construes Christianity as a normative marker of belonging in the class. For non-participants this hardly constitutes the basis for an inclusive school environment.
There are also some shocking statements in your policy, one of which reads, “Students exempt from partaking in recitation of the Lord’s Prayer are still expected to adhere to behavior expectations during the regular school day.” This wording implies that the behavior of children who don’t pray is likely to be worse than those who do; this is clearly discriminatory. The policy’s preamble says that the Board of Trustees not only believes in religious tolerance, diversity, and inclusiveness, but also in “the provision of appropriate opportunities for students to give expression to their religious beliefs”. I am curious about what opportunities would be given to students of non-Christian religions and whether such expressions would receive the same acknowledgement in the school’s daily schedule as the Lord’s Prayer receives.
I understand that the vast majority of parents polled by the Horizon School District wanted the prayer reinstated. Your decision, however, surrenders the rights of the minority to the privilege of the majority. This is diametrically opposed to both your stated goal of producing a welcoming school environment for all and to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the basis for Canadian law. Continuing with the plan to reinstate prayer at Dr. Hamman School is purely an exercise in discriminatory privilege and irresponsible power that marginalizes and stigmatizes children you have the responsibility to protect. We do not have a free society at all if the rights of those in the minority are ignored by the powerful. Proper leadership in this matter would be to fulfill the School Division’s obligation of religious neutrality by abandoning the reinstatement of prayer and affirming to both students and their parents that sectarian privilege has no place in a public school or a free democracy.
/jl cc: Minister of Education D. Eggen, Premier R. Notley, MLA S. Phillips, MLA G. Hunter