Saturday, January 18, 2020

Canadian Court Says Indigenous Events In School Did Not Infringe Religious Freedom of Christian Students

In Canada, in Servatius v. Board of Education School District No. 70, (BC Sup. Ct., Jan. 8, 2020), a British Columbia trial court judge rejected claims of infringement of religious freedom asserted by the mother of two school children. The court summarized the dispute:
As part of an effort to acquaint students with Indigenous culture and to promote a sense of belonging in Indigenous children, a Nuu-chah-nulth Elder visited a Port Alberni elementary school and demonstrated the practice of smudging. A few months later, an assembly at this public school witnessed an Indigenous dance performance, in the midst of which the dancer said a prayer. The petitioner is an evangelical Christian. Her nine-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son were enrolled in the school and witnessed these demonstrations of Indigenous culture and spirituality.
In dismissing the claims, the court said in part:
When arrangements are made for Indigenous events in its schools, even events with elements of spirituality, the School District is not professing or favouring Indigenous beliefs. Educators are holding these events to teach about Indigenous culture, and to introduce students to Indigenous perspectives and worldviews....
I conclude that proof on an objective basis of interference with the ability of the petitioner or her children to act in accordance with their religious beliefs requires more than the children being in the presence of an Elder demonstrating a custom with spiritual overtones or being in the presence of a dancer who said a brief prayer. In most instances, it is not difficult to recognize the boundary between a student learning about different beliefs and being made to participate in spiritual rituals. A field trip to a mosque to watch prayers would be learning about Islam; an Imam coming to the classroom and demonstrating prayer rituals would likewise not be problematic. However, in either of these cases, if the involvement of the students progressed to being called upon to pray or read from the Koran then it might well be said that educators have compelled the manifestation of a specific religious practice or the affirmation of a specific religious belief. If a Catholic priest came to school with altar candles and a censer containing incense to acquaint the students with the sights and scents of Church rites, this would seem to be well within the bounds of what the S.L. case stands for: religious freedom is not compromised when students are taught about other beliefs. If, however, the children underwent a baptism, this would be far over the line.
(See prior related posting.)