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Schools ignore prayer rules

Lawyer who fought for secularism as student reveals new violations

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Children pray in public-school classrooms during school hours throughout Manitoba -- apparently in violation of provincial rules that the department of education says it will not enforce.

The Lord's Prayer is being read over the intercom by the principal or in classrooms by teachers.

Schools allow parent councils to organize petitions for religious exercises through the schools, and in a few cases, directly help organize them.

Parents receive yes-or-no ballots and are told they must fill in and sign forms if they do not want their children to pray in a supposedly secular school.

And there are even schools in which non-praying students are expected to stand quietly in their classrooms while their classmates recite the Lord's Prayer all around them.

Every one of these actions violates Manitoba's guidelines on religious exercises in secular public schools, says Dauphin lawyer and atheist Chris Tait.

But the province says its only recourse is to remind school divisions about guidelines -- after that, it's up to individuals to take their complaints to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission or the courts.

It was back in 1986 that Tait was suspended several times for refusing to stand during the reciting of the Lord's Prayer in his MacGregor Collegiate classroom. That led to a historic 1992 court case in which the Court of Queen's Bench struck down mandatory school prayer in Manitoba.

More than 20 Manitoba school divisions are violating the province's guidelines on religious exercises, said Tait. He filed Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act applications to school divisions and provided the results to the Free Press.

"I think it's very deliberate that they ignore (the guidelines)," Tait said. "They're on a project to push through a religious agenda. They're getting people to co-operate that aren't of the Christian faith."

Education Minister Nancy Allan declined a request to be interviewed. An aide to the minister bumped inquiries to David Yeo, director of the education administration services branch.

The province reminded school divisions of the guidelines in a meeting last fall, Yeo said.

"The issue whether prayer should exist in public schools is a controversial one. The Public Schools Act permits it," Yeo said. "Ultimately, school boards are legally autonomous entities."

When the province gets a complaint, it reminds the school division about the guidelines, but beyond that, it's up to individuals to pursue complaints with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission or with the courts, Yeo said.

"School boards have the responsibility to implement it appropriately. The recourse is to the commission," Yeo said. "At the end of the day, it's the finders of fact which can issue a remedy. That's the commission or the court."

Tait said the province has always taken a hands-off approach to public school prayer.

"The department has a policy of not following through. They wouldn't tolerate it in other areas -- it's poor leadership from the province," he said.

It defies Statistics Canada's data on religious beliefs to have 100 per cent participation in a community, said Tait, who suspects some parents are being forced by peer pressure to have their children pray.

Tait's freedom-of-information request showed that at R.F. Morrison School in Seven Oaks School Division, Manitoba's most diverse school division, the Lord's Prayer was read over the intercom each morning. Students not taking part went to the library or stood quietly in the classroom among praying classmates.

Superintendent Brian O'Leary said he hadn't been aware of the practice at R.F. Morrison School until he signed off on the division's response to Tait's request.

After O'Leary consulted the province, he decided that Seven Oaks was in violation and ordered the school to change the way it conducts religious exercises.

"We took Chris Tait's advice," said O'Leary. "We're changing the procedure."

Now prayer takes place in the school library well before the school day starts.

"It's a Ukrainian bilingual school, that's part of it. It's been part of the character of that school for quite a while," O'Leary said.

With the exceptions of Morris and Sanford collegiates, almost every school in Red River Valley School Division prays each morning, usually in classrooms and often with all students participating.

At Oak Bluff Community School just southwest of the city, all staff and all but one student pray each morning in class, the division told Tait.

Red River Valley superintendent Kelly Barkman said he has no idea why Oak Bluff has almost 100 per cent participation. "I don't know -- you start getting into the morality of a community and religious beliefs" if the division starts asking questions, he said.

"If it's 100 per cent, they do it in the classroom," Barkman said.

Barkman said Starbuck School has 100 per cent participation in prayer, and that includes the school's hockey academy, whose students pray after coming off the ice at 10:30 a.m.

Tait said he didn't file a FIPPA request with all divisions because some, such as Winnipeg School Division, have followed the guidelines explicitly for years.

He found that Steinbach-based Hanover School Division, as overwhelmingly Christian an area as you'll find in Manitoba, is following the guidelines to the letter.

Hanover superintendent Ken Klassen advised Tait that Hanover children pray in areas other than the classroom prior to starting the official school day, when students sing O Canada and listen to announcements. Any children not taking part in prayers go to their classrooms under teacher supervision.

And in Steinbach and area, churches organize the parent petitions for religious exercises with no involvement by the schools.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

 

 

Prayer regulations

Excerpts from the provincial guidelines for conducting religious exercises in public schools:

 

-- The Public Schools Act states... that public schools shall be non-sectarian. Religious exercises may only be conducted where a petition asking for such exercises (signed by the parents/guardians of 75 per cent of the students when a school has fewer than 80 students, or by the parents/guardians of at least 60 students in schools that have an enrolment of 80 or more students) is presented to the board.

-- The guidelines may be shared with parents/guardians... to explain the process necessary for implementation of religious exercises.

-- School boards should not, however, take any action that would be seen as initiating or prompting implementation of religious exercises. The process must be grassroots-driven, with parents/guardians taking the initiative to have religious exercises implemented. Schools should play no role in the petition process, and act on a petition only when so advised by the school board.

-- Only those children whose parents/guardians have signed the petition may participate. It must be an opt-in process.

-- Schools should not send out ballots to parents/guardians to record whether or not they wish their children to participate in religious exercises.

-- Petitions respecting religious exercises must be received by the school board each school year, and be on a school-by-school basis.

-- The content of any religious exercise must be defined by those petitioning for it. It is conceivable that parents of a variety of faith groups could petition for their own religious exercises.

-- Teachers and other staff are not compelled to conduct or supervise religious exercises. School boards shall not, as part of the hiring or promotion process, inquire of applicants/candidates as to their willingness to participate in, conduct, or supervise religious exercises.

-- The exercises are not to be held during regular instructional time.

-- It is recommended that those participating in religious exercises congregate in a common area (gym, multi-purpose room, empty classroom, etc.) proceed with the exercises, and then rejoin their classmates prior to class.

 

---- Source: Manitoba Department of Education's administrative handbook for schools

 

 

Around Manitoba

 

Some ways in which school prayer is conducted in Manitoba public schools:

  Turtle River School Division: Alonsa and Laurier schools hold prayer in classrooms.

 River East Transcona S.D.: Donwood Elementary parent advisory council gets parent signatures at school events. Radisson and Salisbury Morse schools allow ballots to be dropped off at the school. Donwood allows volunteers leading prayers to be trained in the school. École Centrale has petitions at school functions. Parents are told: "Religious exercises will be based on the Christian faith and will consist of the following: the Lord's Prayer as it appears in Matthew 6:9-13 of the Holy Bible (New International Version).

 Park West S.D.: Inglis School has all students pray in the gym.

 Lakeshore S.D.: Churches and religion instructors organize petitions in Fisher Branch Early Years School. Ballots are distributed that tell parents they're required to give their child's name and indicate yes or no.

 Prairie Spirit S.D.: École Somerset School listens to the Lord's Prayer over the intercom. At Ste. Marie School, the school gathers to pray in one classroom at 8:55 a.m., and religion is taught two Wednesday afternoons monthly for 45-minute sessions; the parent advisory council gives parents a ballot with a yes or no line. Westmount School Complex prays at 9 a.m., and says, "Students who do not participate stand quietly in the room among their peers. The vast majority of students participate."

 Prairie Rose S.D.: Parents at Roland Elementary receive a yes or no ballot.

 Pine Creek S.D.: at Plumas School, the student body says the Lord's Prayer in a classroom.

 Swan Valley S.D.: At Minitonas Early Years School, religious exercises are held in the classroom. Parents must inform the division if they want their child to be elsewhere at that time. Sunrise S.D.: Beausejour Early Years School parent advisory council sends a form using the school's address and Sunrise email. At Hazelridge School, a letter on school letterhead says the parent advisory council wants prayer, and has yes or no checkoffs.

 Red River Valley S.D.: the Domain School principal leads all staff and students in the Lord's Prayer in a classroom. At École St. Malo School, and Sanford's J.A. Cuddy School, all students pray in the classroom, led by teachers. All students and staff say the Lord's Prayer at Lowe Farm School and it is read over the intercom. At Rosenort School, all students and staff take part, and the prayer is read over the intercom.

  ---- Source: school divisions' responses to freedom of information requests from Dauphin atheist Chris Tait.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 24, 2011 B1

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