Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

NDP shows its cowardice

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In an incredible display of moral cowardice, the province says it can't do anything about the fact that more than 20 school divisions are violating Manitoba's strict legislation on religious exercises in schools, as well as a landmark court ruling.

The Public Schools Act declares that schools are to be non-sectarian, and it imposes strict rules for how school space might be made available for parents who want their children to receive religious instruction. It must, by law, be a grassroots initiative with no support or encouragement from teachers or school staff, except to accommodate appropriate requests for school space.

But some schools are holding prayers in classrooms or gymnasiums for all students. One school compels every student to stand for prayers but permits them to remain silent. Other schools are soliciting parental support for prayers in violation of the law, while some schools subject the students, staff and support workers to prayers over the intercom during school hours.

A court ruled in 1992 that mandatory school prayers violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in a case that was sparked by Chris Tait, then a young student, who was suspended several times for refusing to stand for the Lord's Prayer.

Some school divisions have ignored the ruling and the provincial law in the past, either out of ignorance or insubordination, but the province can no longer tolerate the violations that are occurring.

The province says it reminded the offending school divisions last fall that there were guidelines on religious instruction but claims it can't do much more. An official said it was up to ordinary individuals to go to court or to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission to seek compliance.

The response is hogwash. The province had no qualms about twisting arms when a school in Steinbach opened a smoking shack for students in violation of provincial policy, and it has no reservations about using muscle to gain compliance in other areas of provincial policy.

In this case, the province has a duty to enforce the law, either by going to court itself or by threatening to withhold grants to the scofflaw divisions. A court could find the divisions in contempt of the 1992 ruling and order compliance followed by penalties for continued violations.

It's also disturbing that Education Minister Nancy Allan has refused to speak on the matter, abdicating her prime responsibility to ensure that legal rights are respected in the public schools. Regrettably, it's typical of this NDP government to duck and run for cover, rather than stand on principle.

The law is not there merely to protect the rights of Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists but Christians too, many of whom believe the church, and not the public school system, is the proper place for religious instruction.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 25, 2011 A18

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