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Ontario Supreme Court Upholds Constitutionality of School Prayer

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The Supreme Court of Ontario, in a 2-1 vote, has upheld the constitutionality of school prayer. In an historic ruling here recently, the court held that the daily recitation in many Ontario schools of the Lord’s Prayer does not violate the religious freedom of non-Christians or non-believers and is not contrary to Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The case stems from a suit launched by five parents in Sudbury, Ontario, who argued that the daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in schools promotes Christianity over other religions and discriminates against non-Christians and non-believers. Two of the parents are secular Jews, one is a practicing Jew, one a Moslem and one a non-practicing Christian.

They argued that although regulations of the Sudbury Board of Education allow children to opt out of prayer, the act of not conforming singles them out and opens them to ridicule and stigmatization.

The parents said the Lord’s Prayer impels religious observance and is a Christian, not a non-denominational prayer. They wanted either to scrap saying the prayer or to allow children a moment of quiet reflection, a practice now common in many schools.

But the court rejected the parents’ argument, ruling there was no coercion to say the prayer and added that if a child faces embarrassment as a result of not saying it, “it is nevertheless an embarrassment that will have to be faced throughout life and not just during school years,” Justice Dennis O’Leary said in his judgment.

DISAPPOINTMENT WITH THE RULING

At least one of the Jewish parents said she would gladly send her child to a Jewish school but there aren’t any in Sudbury. Jewish community officials have expressed disappointment with the ruling.

“It’s a sad day,” said Canadian Jewish Congress (CJC) Ontario Region chairman Charles Zaionz. “(The ruling) certainly sustains the feeling that the public school system is not devoid of religion. The problem is that many people feel the Lord’s Prayer is non-denominational. It’s a Christian prayer of Christian origin. Somewhere down the line, (the case) will probably get to the Supreme Court (of Canada).”

“We’re quite disappointed,” said Alan Shefman, national director of the B’nai B’rith League for Human Rights. “We are very strongly urging the ministry of education, even in light of the decision, to amend the inadequacies in the (Education) Act.” Both the CJC and the League were interveners in the case.

THE RULING OPINION

In his judgment, O’Leary wrote that “our schools have an obligation to teach morality. While some may argue that morality can be taught without associating it with God, few would deny that in the minds of most persons, morality and religion are intertwined and that to associate God and morality is an effective way of teaching morality.”

O’Leary noted that the Constitution recognizes the supremacy of God and wrote that reciting the Lord’s Prayer, even if one is not a Christian or is a non-believer, does not deprive a person of his religious freedoms. At best, it amounts to “a minor infringement of freedom of conscience and religion.”

Justice William Anderson agreed, saying the opting out provision of the regulations ensures that no student is forced to recite the prayer. Anderson suggested the parents appeal to the school board to explore the possibility of more ecumenical religious exercise.

The decision “reveals a regretable insensitivity to the realities of minority group experiences,” said Alan Borovoy, counsel to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

THE DISSENTING OPINION

But the parents can take some solace in the dissenting opinion of Justice Robert Reid, who agreed that school prayer “grants to the minority less freedom than the majority enjoy.

“I cannot accept the view that the objectors must pay a price for their objection, when the willing conformists pay no price… It may be difficult for religious people to appreciate the feelings of agnostics and atheists. Yet nevertheless, those feelings exist,” Reid argued.

Canada has no constitutional separation of church and state.

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