Rules Are for Schmucks: Secular Education: Banned in Canada?

Catholic schools have been around for a long time. So long as they do a decent job of teaching students the skills they need to thrive in adulthood (as they generally do), and so long as they aren’t supported with tax money, I don’t see anything wrong with them. Sure, I’d prefer a world where supernaturalism didn’t exist at all. But since that is not the world we live in, I don’t see a problem with a private group establishing a private school and proclaiming, “This is a Catholic institution, where Catholic values prevail and Catholic doctrine is taught. If that’s not what you want, then go to a public school or some other school of your choice.”

Other religious sects have their own schools as well: Lutherans, Jews, Muslims, Mormons, etc. If they aren’t using my money, if they are doing a good job, and if there is a public school choice available for families who don’t want that kind of environment, I don’t see a problem. Diversity has its values.

Well, what about a secular-oriented school? A school that doesn’t care what the private beliefs of its students are but that wants to create an educational environment where secular values prevail? Using its own money, without relying on funds from the government? Is this so terrible?

In Alberta, Canada, the answer is yes, that’s terrible, and you cannot do that.

A case decided last summer, Webber Academy Foundation v. Alberta, involves a school that advertises itself as “non-denominational.” That would not be the term I would use for a school that prides itself on being “not a place where religious activities are to be carried out by members of any religious group on campus.” I’d just call it “secular.” The court called it illegal.

Two Muslim students were admitted to Webber Academy in 2011. They were attracted, perhaps, by school advertising that featured students wearing turbans. (The school genuinely wants a diverse student body.) School administrators say that before the students’ admission, they had a discussion with them and their parents making clear that the lengthy form of Muslim prayer, which involves prostration on a prayer run and dance-like ritual motions taking place multiple times a day, would not be allowed on school property. Private beliefs of any kind were fine, but elaborate gyrations to appease the spirit in the sky were out of keeping with the secular values the school wanted to promote.

That didn’t matter. The students went ahead and did their prayers anyway. And when they were expelled for deliberately disobeying the school rules, the Alberta Human Rights Commission steamed in to body slam the school for daring to be secular. The school appealed the ruling. However, in August, an Alberta court decided that secular educational environments were verboten and slapped them with a $26,000 fine. So much for diversity.

Here’s a question: in Alberta, must Muslim prayer rituals also be permitted at a Catholic school, as well as at a secular school? How about at a Jewish school? (Unlike US civil rights laws, the Alberta statute has no explicit exception for church institutions.) Islam isn’t the only religion with elaborate prayer rituals. Some Orthodox Jews, for example, have routines they follow as well. Must an Orthodox Jew at a Muslim school be permitted to chant Hebrew prayers? Some Native Americans use dance as a form of prayer. Does this have to be accommodated at every school as well?

I’m not licensed to practice law in Canada, but I can read. And when I read the Webber opinion along with the human rights statute it interprets, it looks to me like the answer to all of these questions is, “Yes.” When it comes to religion, anything goes, all of the time.

Prayer is not the only exercise of religion that could be affected by the decision. Will private school cafeterias, including those at Catholic or Lutheran schools, have to start serving kosher and halal food to those who demand it, like American prisons do? How about religious organizations and clubs, whether officially recognized by the school or otherwise? In American public schools there is a “See You At the Pole Day” campaign to get students to gather for voluntary Christian prayer at the school’s flagpole. Do non-Christian private schools have to permit that as well? How about distribution of religious—or anti-religious—literature? Does a Catholic school have to permit students to hand out atheist brochures?

In fact, the Alberta statute is not limited to schools but covers all “goods, services, accommodation, or facilities that are customarily available to the public.” Will sports arenas and shopping malls have to make prayer spaces available for those who request them?

This is not the worldview that prevails in, for example, Switzerland. A recent case there involved a longstanding custom in which Swiss students and their teachers shake hands. Longstanding, that is, until some male Muslim students decided they might get cooties if they touched a female teacher’s hand and refused to do so. An incensed teachers union got the custom turned into a rule, and after students deliberately violated the rule, the case wound up in court.

And the Swiss court ruled that no, religion doesn’t have to win all the time—that when it comes to a simple custom of civility, like a handshake demonstrating the bond of respect between teacher and student, what the God experts say doesn’t matter. The recalcitrant student now has to pay a fine of 5,000 Swiss francs for the privilege of insulting his teacher. This follows an earlier Dutch case, in which the Rotterdam council was vindicated in its refusal to employ a Muslim attorney in its social services department after he indicated that he would refuse to shake the hands of any female clients.

I’ll bet that in Switzerland, a private school that wanted the freedom to be secular would be able to do so.