Here’s a bit from a story that sounds like it belongs in the Deep South, but rather comes from the edge of St. Albert, Alberta, just outside of Edmonton.
A school council meeting was scheduled for anyone concerned to discuss or provide input. Myself and the other dissenting family were directly asked by the Principal to attend to share the ‘other side’ of why this was happening. In retrospect, I wish I had never attended.
The school council meeting set a record for attendees at around 50. It was a nasty, personal, aggressive attack on myself and the other family. The anger and vitriol was incredible – and of course, everybody blamed us personally for coming to “their” school and forcing them to give up their religion.
The fact that they were contravening the Alberta Human Rights Act, The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom as well as the United Nations Charter for Human Rights did not seem to matter. Nor the fact that we were entering our 3rd year at the school with two children enrolled, making it as much ours as any bodies. I really struggle to convey how nasty that first meeting was and how it set the tone for a downward spiral of events.
This was the hottest topic around the school and as you could imagine the rumour mill was in overtime. We began to notice we were beginning to be ignored, given the cold shoulder or receiving glares from people we did not even know.
The story is from Luke Fevin, and is completely transcribed on the Society of Edmonton Atheists website (go and read it!).
An Edmonton Journal article discusses some of the complexities of the situation. Specifically, journalist Paula Simons cites a Sturgeon School Board Policy:
The Board believes that our schools are responsible for helping children develop emotionally, intellectually, physically, morally and spiritually. In accordance with the School Act, the Board encourages the practice of providing opportunities for students to take part in religious exercises and/or religious instruction during the day.
Giving me hope for today’s mainstream media, Simons doesn’t mince words, condemning the school:
Yes. In the multicultural Canada of 2011, a public, non-Catholic, supposedly secular school board, fully funded by Alberta taxpayers, has long been explicitly encouraging Christian prayer.
Such sectarian evangelism no longer has any place in a contemporary Canadian public school district. It’s up to parents, not school boards, to guide their children’s spiritual development. Religious freedom is the most private and personal of rights. A public school board, constituted to serve the widest number of families, has no moral authority to favour one religious doctrine over another, nor to impose the faith of the cultural majority on all its students, be they Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Parsi, atheist or agnostic. The idea that all schoolchildren should be forced to recite a holy prayer by rote, regardless of their faith, should offend real Christians, too. If I were a devout Christian, I’d consider it a blasphemy for a bunch of non-believers to parrot the words of Jesus.
Institutional recitation isn’t true prayer — it’s soulless babble. I understand that the prayer was a school tradition — but as the school community changes, it’s a tradition that needs to fade into memory.
I couldn’t say it better myself.
Simons goes on to point out one legal opinion – not a ruling, mind you – that the right to be discriminatory is enshrined under the agreements made when Alberta joined the country in 1905. And just as it takes a (couple line) constitutional amendment to remove funding to publicly funded Catholic Schools, it would be equally onerous to ban school prayer in Alberta.
I should point out that when I was president of the UofA Atheists and Agnostics we received a request for help from a parent in Stettler, whose children were subjugated to the Lord’s Prayer every morning. We looked up the corresponding legislation and came across Section 50 of the Alberta School Act:
Religious and patriotic instruction
50(1) A board may
(a) prescribe religious instruction to be offered to its students;
(b) prescribe religious exercises for its students;
(c) prescribe patriotic instruction to be offered to its students;
(d) prescribe patriotic exercises for its students;
(e) permit persons other than teachers to provide religious instruction to its students.
(2) Where a teacher or other person providing religious or patriotic instruction receives a written request signed by a parent of a student that the student be excluded from religious or patriotic instruction or exercises, or both, the teacher or other person shall permit the student
(a) to leave the classroom or place where the instruction or exercises are taking place for the duration of the instruction or exercises, or
(b) to remain in the classroom or place without taking part in the instruction or exercises.
The School Act regulates the powers of the local school board, and while this section is discriminatory, section 50(2) provides at least some means for Fevin to opt his children out (although, at least for the time-being the school has put a hold on the proselytization). Further, the new “parental rights” portion of the Alberta Human Rights Act gives him further ability to opt his children out of class.
Of course, being the atheist who sits in the hall is like giving the black kids their own water fountain or creating civil unions for gay people so that they can be considered “separate but equal.”
The biggest irony to me is the idea thought that so many of those fighting to force their religion upon Levin’s children are likely those who would also adamantly oppose the optional Islamic prayers being offered at a Toronto public school. Perhaps I’m wrong, but the hypocrisy of religion rarely surprises.
Of course this story comes from my home province of Alberta. Ironically, this division is close to Morinville, where no secular schools existed before this year. Alberta, home to publicly funded Catholic Schools, religious private schools that can receive 70% of the funding a public school receives, the city of St. Albert doesn’t have a secular school district (just a Catholic and Protestant one), and the public schools can force you to listen to Christian prayers.