Human Rights Tribunal: School Discriminated Against Students by Banning Prayer August 11, 2020

Human Rights Tribunal: School Discriminated Against Students by Banning Prayer

Webber Academy, a private K-12 school in southwest Calgary, mentions faith specifically in its declaration of beliefs and values:

The Webber Academy Board and school faculty believe in… creating an atmosphere where young people of many faiths and cultures feel equally at home.

But it’s hard to imagine that Sarmad Amir and Naman Siddiqui felt particularly at home when the faculty told them it was unacceptable to perform their daily prayers on campus in accord with the requirements of their Sunni Muslim faith.

Nearly a decade ago, Amir and Siddiqui brought their case before the Alberta Human Rights Commission tribunal, arguing that the school was discriminating against them by requiring them to leave campus if they wanted to fulfill their religious obligations. In some cases, they say, they performed their prayers outside in the snow to get around the school’s anti-prayer rule.

Amir and Siddiqui said they were told that the bowing and kneeling that takes place in traditional Muslim prayer was “too obvious” and that any accommodation for it would have gone against the school’s secular character.

Said Siddiqui:

I had this intense sense of shame and humiliation, despite that I was just exercising my right as a Canadian citizen, as a human being, to practice my faith.

Indeed, human rights legislation upholds the students’ right to voluntary prayers in school. The 2015 tribunal ruling found that the school could and should have accommodated the students’ needs without undue hardship. The presence of religious people engaging in private, voluntary practices in a secular space does not make the space any less secular.

Webber Academy disagreed and appealed to the Court of Queen’s Bench to uphold their right to prohibit prayer on campus. Instead, Judge Glen Poelman agreed with the tribunal. He also pointed out that the school allows and even celebrates cosmetic-level religious practices, like turbans, facial hair, and headscarves. If that doesn’t violate the image of a non-denominational school, why should prayer?

So Webber appealed the decision yet again, approaching the Alberta Court of Appeal, raising questions about whether the relevant portions of the Alberta Human Rights Act conflicted with the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At that point, they got somewhere: The 2018 appeals court found that the possible conflict was concerning enough to merit a second look from the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

Which brings us to 2020, and the tribunal’s new decision — same as the old one. It remains a human rights violation to deny prayer space to students who request it, or to have students leave the building to perform their religious obligations.

How has Webber decided it wants to respond to this ruling? You guessed it — they’re going to appeal the new ruling to the Court of Queen’s Bench! And around and around we go…

Surely the court costs must be adding up at this point, but for school president Neil Webber, it’s the principle of secularism that matters:

We feel that we should have the right, as a private school, to have youngsters here of many different faiths and backgrounds together, free of religious practices.

Parents have choices in terms of sending their kids to schools that have a denominational belief, so I don’t see any difference for Webber Academy to be able to have a school where their kids are in an environment that’s free of religious practices.

I think it sets a [precedent] where schools right across the country will have to provide prayer space for youngsters coming into their school. It’s not just an impact on Webber Academy. It’s going to have implications across the country.

On that last point, Mr. Webber might well be right: This case sets a legal precedent requiring schools to provide accommodations for students who want to practice religion as they see fit. That’s not a bad thing. Secularism demands freedom from religious coercion, not the absence of (usually non-Christian) markers of religious practice imposed by the administration’s authoritarian fiat.

If it’s not acceptable to force students to pray in school, it’s also not acceptable to force students to forego prayer.

(Image via Facebook. Thanks to Murray for the link)

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