For those of you interested in how religion impacts our schools and the importance of Alberta adopting a secular school system, I thought that you may be interested in my family’s experience. My wife and I live in St. Albert and have 3 children, two girls now 7 & 5 and a little boy who’s 3. Three years ago in the summer of 2008 we were looking for the right school for our children. Catholic schools, you will appreciate, were not an option for us – but we found a wonderful school on the outskirts of St. Albert in the Sturgeon school district. Not too big, not too small, nice mix of urban and country families, progressive programs and new I.T. tools finding its way into the classrooms. We visited the school and given that ‘no religion’ was one of our key factors, took the time to ensure there were no prominent crosses or other symbols, no religious artwork or any other indications of institutional religion.
We spent a long time looking at the websites for both the school and the school board (around 150 web pages) and were happy to note the repeated use of the term “optional religion” – the school did run a non-denominational LOGOS program, but as this was clearly and repeatedly stated to be “optional” this was not a concern. To be fair, the website did indicate that annual religious festivals were observed, but my Wife and I accepted this as providing ‘teaching opportunities’ for our kids as well as being a reasonable representation of cultural history. Our eldest child started the ‘Montessori’ program in 2008 which starts later in the day and a year later moved into Kindergarten
Imagine our surprise at the beginning of the school year (2009) when our eldest entered Kindergarten (and with our 2nd in Montessori). Bringing our child to school for the first time at 8:30am we were stunned to hear over the PA system, after “Oh Canada’ had been observed, the Lord’s Prayer. All the kids, parents and staff wherever they were in the classroom, in the hallway all stopped and observed the Lord’s Prayer as it was played over every loudspeaker in the school. We were horrified.
We did nothing for some time – almost a year in fact – feeling awkward and uncomfortable every time we were present when it was played. I did not want my child to feel forced to observe what I consider a frighteningly oppressive prayer – yet the looks we got if we ignored it were harsh from some parents as well as school staff. Eventually I attended a school board meeting and politely broached the subject. The board was very nice and suggested I begin by discussing it with our school Principal. I attended an open ‘coffee with the Principal’ meeting with one other parent in attendance and shared my concern that my children were be forced to observe, or at the very least listen to the Lord’s Prayer and that any dissent was obvious and that this clearly was not an acceptable situation.
I was told that a few months prior (approx end of 2009) another family had raised the same point, that the school had got a legal opinion and that what they were doing was OK. The school council had a meeting on the subject and had voted to continue with the status quo and that was how it was going to be. After another period of shutting up, putting up and feeling uncomfortable with the whole situation (not to mention that my children had started to believe in god, which in an irreligious house where the subject doesn’t come up seems like an interesting leap) I broached the subject once more with the Principal. It is worth noting that coincidentally (or not)the Sturgeon School Board had entered discussions regarding operating the new Morinville secular school and the Sturgeon Heights themselves were presenting themselves as an overflow / alternative for Morinville parents looking for a secular option.
Out of the blue, I was told by the Principal (Spring 2011) that the school has sought (another) legal opinion on the subject and this time the result was that playing the Lord’s Prayer over the school PA system would not meet a legal test and that the school had decided to cease playing the Lord’s Prayer as of the commencement of the new school year in Sept 2011.
The school sent out a memo to parents advising this was the case and letting parents know that the Lord’s Prayer was been replaced by a few moments of silence for each student to reflect or pray personally.
A school council meeting was scheduled for anyone concerned to discuss or provide input. Myself and the other dissenting family were directly asked by the Principal to attend to share the ‘other side’ of why this was happening. In retrospect, I wish I had never attended.
The school council meeting set a record for attendees at around 50. It was a nasty, personal, aggressive attack on myself and the other family. The anger and vitriol was incredible – and of course, everybody blamed us personally for coming to “their” school and forcing them to give up their religion.
The fact that they were contravening the Alberta Human Rights Act, The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom as well as the United Nations Charter for Human Rights did not seem to matter. Nor the fact that we were entering our 3rd year at the school with two children enrolled, making it as much ours as anybody’s. I really struggle to convey how nasty that first meeting was and how it set the tone for a downward spiral of events.
This was the hottest topic around the school and as you could imagine the rumor mill was in overtime. We began to notice we were beginning to be ignored, given the cold shoulder or receiving glares from people we did not even know.
Even though the school had made its policy decision on replacing the Lord’s Prayer with the Personal Prayer / Reflection time it reversed its decision and immediately prior to Summer break up announced that there would be a new series of meetings and committees to discuss at the issue at the beginning of Sept.
Summer went by with little contact from any of our school ‘friends’. We returned to school at the beginning of September and while pleasantly surprised to note that the Lord’s prayer was no longer being played in the morning, this seemed only to whip up the fervor of those that wanted to keep it and by the second week when the steering committee was formed the anger and divisiveness was fresh and raw again.
A committee was formed that included myself and the other secular parent as well as the Principal, VP, Trustee and other parents. It would be remiss of me to not point out that these meetings and the other parents involved were polite and respectful throughout, without ever acknowledging the fact that the school had been conducting itself inappropriately in this regard and that the loss of the Lords Prayer was not a direct result of two ‘squeaky wheels’, but because it was fundamentally improper in the first place.
It was agreed that an open workshop would be held for parents that wished to participate which occurred a couple of weeks ago. Around 34 parents showed up as the Principal made a fair attempt to guide us through a workshop designed to highlight shared values, rather than doctrinal differences. The other parents ignored this and the talk was about segregating the children so that those that wanted to do the Lord’s Prayer in the morning would go to the gym, while the “others” would go to their classroom.
The follow up steering committee meeting where we were supposed to discuss options and ideas was railroaded from the start. We are going to segregate the kids to perform the Lord’s Prayer everyday and that was that.
The school staff had a meeting to discuss the logistics and there were many disagreements. The logistics of performing this with so many kids was too much. How about performing it at lunch time and actually introducing a ‘grace’ as well? This is the current state of flux, with people that want the Lord’s Prayer desperately trying to find a way to jam it into the school day, despite the disruption to teachers and students – a fact that would suggest that the explicit goal of the school, to educate our children is being compromised to placate a few.
My other issue with this, is that regardless of whether my children opt out of the Lord’s Prayer (although I suspect they will go where ever their friends go) is that by having only two options; ‘Christian Prayer’ or ‘Nothing’ the school organization is conveying a special respect or endorsement of this doctrine – and that is also fundamentally wrong. The default to my 7 and 5 year old children is that god is true because that why the school has prayers for him. There is no counterpoint or alternative.
Of course, one interesting question in all this is why out a school with approx 375 children, have only two families said anything? Is this because only two families feel this way? Of course not – the elephant in the room is that anyone who dares dissent against the religious status quo will pay a price (as my family are doing). I know of parents that agree with us but just don’t want to get involved and even parents who agree, but because they own local businesses know that speaking up could well be financial suicide. Bullying discrimination by religion. It is real, but no-one wants to touch it – it is more toxic than racial discrimination.
So far, the net result of religion in my children’s school has been to set parent against parent, child against child and even teacher against teacher – but to point this out would be considered inflammatory and disrespectful.
Well that is where we are. They sold my family essentially a secular school – and when we complained about our children being indoctrinated against our will (and against the Alberta Human Rights Act and others) they hung us out to dry. We will see what happens next, but I am so disgusted by our treatment by the school leadership and by some of the parents that we are considering going to the media as well as legal recourse.
If anyone has any advice, experience or information that might assist us I would much appreciate it.
To be clear, I am fundamentally opposed to the segregation of children based on the faith of their parents in a pluralistic public school. It is simply not acceptable. This experience has motivated me to redouble our efforts in introducing a secular schooling system here in Alberta.