The town of Taber, Alberta has recently drawn national attention due to their public school board’s decision to stop the practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer in school. This decision comes after complaints from Melanie Bell, the mother of a student who was allegedly reprimanded for not fully reciting the prayer. According to the Lethbridge Herald, Ms. Bell feels the “basic human rights of freedom of region [of her children were] being violated” through the practice, as neither she nor her children “participate in the Christian faith”. Prior to lodging her complaint, Ms. Bell stated that she explored the option of relocating her children to another school, but no option was available.
Ms. Bell commented that Dr. Hamman School is the only public school in Taber, Alberta that maintains the religious practice – which at one time was common throughout Canada. Following the enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the practice of in-school prayer faced strong opposition. In the 1988 case of Zylberberg v Sudbury Board of Education (Director), the Ontario Court of Appeal addressed the constitutionality of provincial legislation that required public schools to open or close each school day with religious exercises – including the repeating of the Lord’s Prayer. The Court, in a 2-1 decision, found provision violated s. 2(a) of the Charter in a way that was neither insubstantial nor trivial. The next year, the BC Supreme Court ruled a similar provision unconstitutional (Rossow v British Columbia).
Under s. 2(a) schools are not prohibited from all forms of religious education; however, the Charter does prohibit religious indoctrination of children. As such, a school may sponsor the study of religion, but may not sponsor the practice of religion (Justice Canada). This may be a difficult line to draw in certain cases, which gives rise to a number of issues. In this particular instance, some have noted that students may choose not to participate in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. However, Canadian courts have recognized the effect of peer pressure in the classroom, which may effectively compel members of religious minorities to comply with religious practices and thus violate a child’s freedom of religion and conscience.
However, Alberta is in somewhat of a unique situation based on a number of statutes, including the Alberta Act 1905, Alberta Human Rights Act, s. 11.1, and Alberta’s School Act. As a result, public schools may conduct religious exercises without necessarily being unconstitutional or violating human rights legislation – provided necessary requirements are met, including notice to parents. Saskatchewan also enjoys similar allowances under the Saskatchewan Act, 1905 and related legislation. Accordingly, as the both the Charter and Alberta Act share constitutional footing, school prayer policies, which might otherwise be viewed as unconstitutional, may be permissible.