The couple chose Sturgeon Heights school, in the far northwest corner of the their city. Even though the school is now within St. Albert municipal boundaries, it still belongs to the Sturgeon School Division, which serves Sturgeon County.
The Fevins thought they’d found a perfect place to educate their kids, now seven, five, and three.
“It was the Goldilocks school,” says Fevin, wistfully. “Not too big, not too small, not too rural, not too urban. It was, and is, a lovely school.”
Their eldest daughter’s first year in preschool went well. But preschool started later in the morning, after the announcements. It wasn’t until their daughter started kindergarten last September that Fevin got a shock.
At Sturgeon Heights, they began every morning with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer over the intercom. Even if non-Christian families wanted to opt out, they couldn’t, since the prayer was piped throughout the school.
For Fevin, that wasn’t acceptable. He’d enrolled his kids at Sturgeon Heights on the understanding it was a secular school. No one, he says, had told him about the prayer policy. So last year, he began an effort to get it changed, not just for his kids, but for every family that might not feel brave enough to oppose long-established tradition.
“This is a great school with some great people. I just think that they don’t understand that their privilege of historical dominance comes at the cost of other people’s rights — or that what they were doing doesn’t meet the Charter’s promise to my children,” he says. “All I want is for my children, all children, to be equal and to enjoy the same rights.”
Sturgeon Heights, with 382 children in preschool to Grade 9, is a regular public school. It doesn’t host a religious program, such as Logos. So why begin each day with the most explicitly Christian of all prayers?
Principal Garnet Goertzen has a simple answer.
“The Lord’s Prayer is part of opening exercises. It’s been a part of this community’s tradition since the school was new. This community is predominantly a Christian community, and it has been since the school opened.”
For generations, he says, the school served the farm and acreage families of Sturgeon County. Now, with St. Albert growing out to encircle the school, the student demographic has changed to become more urban and multicultural, leaving the school to catch up with new realities.
But don’t get the idea Sturgeon Heights was a rogue school, operating outside the bounds. The promotion of Christian religious observances is actually an explicit part of the policy of the public Sturgeon School Division.
Allow me to quote from the board’s 2003 policy on religious instruction: “The Board believes that our schools are responsible for helping children develop emotionally, intellectually, physically, morally and spiritually. (My emphasis.) In accordance with the School Act, the Board encourages the practice of providing opportunities for students to take part in religious exercises and/or religious instruction during the day.”
Yes. In the multicultural Canada of 2011, a public, non-Catholic, supposedly secular school board, fully funded by Alberta taxpayers, has long been explicitly encouraging Christian prayer.
Such sectarian evangelism no longer has any place in a contemporary Canadian public school district. It’s up to parents, not school boards, to guide their children’s spiritual development. Religious freedom is the most private and personal of rights. A public school board, constituted to serve the widest number of families, has no moral authority to favour one religious doctrine over another, nor to impose the faith of the cultural majority on all its students, be they Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Hindu, Parsi, atheist or agnostic. The idea that all schoolchildren should be forced to recite a holy prayer by rote, regardless of their faith, should offend real Christians, too. If I were a devout Christian, I’d consider it a blasphemy for a bunch of non-believers to parrot the words of Jesus.
Institutional recitation isn’t true prayer — it’s soulless babble. I understand that the prayer was a school tradition — but as the school community changes, it’s a tradition that needs to fade into memory.
And yet, by a quirk of legal history, the Sturgeon School Division isn’t actually breaking Canadian law.
In 1988, the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled, in a cased called Zylberberg vs. Sudbury Board of Education (Director), that the morning recitation of the Lord’s Prayer violated Section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which protects freedom of religion, as well as Section 27, which says the charter should be interpreted to enhance multiculturalism. The court said that even allowing non-Christian students to opt out and leave a classroom during prayer was not good enough, because it put too much social pressure on children to conform with the majority.
While that landmark precedent set the law of the land, banning school prayer all across Canada, legal scholar Linda McKay-Panos says it doesn’t apply in Alberta or Saskatchewan. When the two Prairie provinces entered Confederation in 1905, the federal government allowed them to maintain the protection for school prayer established in the 1901 North-west Territories School Ordinance. Those same protections, McKay-Panos says, were included in the new constitution in 1982.
The result? While schoolchildren of every other province have won freedom of, and freedom from, religion, Alberta’s kids have not.
Since the charter doesn’t have the power to trump another part of the constitution, there’s no way to reconcile the warring sections — unless the provincial government amends the Alberta Act on its own.
“It’s anachronistic,” says McKay-Panos, who is executive director of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre. “We’ve got an anomaly. We’ve got a constitutional problem.”
Ironically, Fevin’s best legal option may be to file a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission, using the new parental rights amendment, created by the controversial legislation known as Bill 44. Politically, of course, the amendment was created to protect Christian parents from having their children compelled to learn about homosexuality. But it could, says McKay-Panos, at least give Fevin the right to have his children exempted from prayer service.
As of this September, at least, principal Goertzen has suspended morning prayer at Sturgeon Heights. The Sturgeon school division is now reviewing its own religious promotion policy. And the community is striving to find some kind of compromise, like a moment of silence, or an ecumenical “affirmation” of values, that maintains a tradition of moral reflection without imposing a specific faith. It won’t be easy to find a solution that pleases everyone. Luke Fevin says his family has already felt immense social pressure, either to leave the school, or surrender the argument. He says he’s not just speaking for his family — but for all who oppose mandatory prayer, yet are too intimidated to say so.
“What is this dark side of religion, that people are afraid to speak up, in a free country? That people don’t want to speak up for fear of reprisals is just disgusting to me. This is a fight that needed to be fought — and we’ll see it through.”
I salute Fevin’s courage — but he shouldn’t have to fight alone. His quest exposes a legal contradiction that leaves the rights of children all across the province in limbo. For their sake, would it be too wild to hope our next premier might have the courage to amend the Alberta Act, to guarantee all Alberta families the same fundamental charter rights other Canadians now take for granted?
I find it ironic that the same people who fought so bitterly to safeguard their children from having "homosexuality taught" in schools and forced on their children, are making this argument. Absolute fail.