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Religious Observance in Public Schools is Being Challenged

Two separate challenges to religious observance in the public classroom have been launched here and both promise to be far-reaching precedents in their outcomes.

In the first, the Supreme Court of Ontario heard a challenge by five parents living in Sudbury, Ontario, to the daily reciting of the Lord’s Prayer in several Sudbury schools. The suit was filed a year ago and charges that reciting the Lord’s Prayer discriminates against non-believers and against non-Christians.

The Canadian Jewish Congress was an intervenor in the case and through its lawyer, John Laskin, argued that the Lord’s Prayer impinges on Canada’s four-year-old Charter of Rights and Freedoms, a part of the Constitution that guarantees freedom of religious expression and prevents discrimination based on religion.

Three of the five parents challenging the Lord’s Prayer in the classroom are Jewish. There are no Jewish schools in Sudbury.

OBJECTION BY THE PARENTS

When the suit was launched, one of the parents, Philip Zylberberg, said his main objection was the emphasis of one religion over any other, as expressed through the Lord’s Prayer, as well as the assumption that all students have a religion.

The parents are charging the Lord’s Prayer is Christian, not non-denominational, and that students should have their choice of either saying a quiet prayer or not saying anything.

B’nai B’rith’s League for Human Rights, also an intervenor, argued through its lawyer, Simon Adler, that the Lord’s Prayer “impresses Christian beliefs” and that a common prayer is not the answer because students should have a choice.

ARGUMENTS BY PARENTS’ ATTORNEY

Charles Campbell, the lawyer representing the parents, argued in front of three Supreme Court justices that sections of the Education Act which require religious observance in the classroom are beyond the power of the act because they are overridden by sections of the Charter that outline freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination based on religious beliefs.

He said reciting the Lord’s Prayer every morning, a practice still widespread in many parts of Ontario, represents discrimination against atheists as well as against non-Christians.

Allowing some students not to say the prayer along with others or letting some leave the class during its recitation is not the answer, Campbell argued, because those actions would single out certain children and expose them to ridicule from their peers.

He said the Lord’s Prayer requirement induces and impels “religious observance either directly or indirectly, and allowing certain children to not say the prayer would “stigmatize” them because “children this age are disinclined to flout authority or ignore peer pressure,” according to a psychological study he cited.

Campbell said allowing children to stand out in the hall during the Lord’s Prayer wouldn’t work in many schools in Sudbury, where the prayer is piped over the public address system and those students would still hear it. The answer is either banning the prayer entirely or replacing it with a moment of quiet reflection, as many Ontario boards now do, he said.

CHALLENGE TO RELIGIOUS STUDIES

In the second case, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association has launched a challenge to the teaching of religious studies in public classrooms.

Led by legal counsel Alan Borovoy, the Association is also basing its case on Canada’s Charter of Rights, arguing that religious studies, taught in the Elgin County Board of Education in and around London, Ontario, “violates the guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion” contained in the Charter.

In some schools religious studies, as outlined in the Education Act, are taught until grade 8, with a half-hour of instruction once a week.

The Association charges that the religious studies program promotes one religion–Christianity–over others instead of promoting knowledge about all religions.

The Association has long lobbied on behalf of replacing the 40-year-old requirement that formal religious studies be taught with instruction that would promote knowledge about many beliefs.

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