By J.W. Schnarr
After two years, the Lord’s Prayer will once more be part of the morning ritual at Dr. Hamman Elementary School.
On April 21 at their regular board meeting, Horizon School Division board of trustees unanimously passed a motion to allow the school to once more begin the day with the prayer, beginning in the fall.
A request for comment from Dr. Hamman School principal Darlene Peckford was directed to Wilco Tymensen, school superintendent.
“The board very much believes in the notion of religious tolerance and wants to acknowledge religious diversity,” he said. “At the same time, it is trying to be receptive to the desires of the community.”
The decision came following submission of the results of a survey held by the Dr. Hamman School Parent Council.
The survey, which asked families to choose whether they supported a request from council to the board to allow the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer as part of the school’s opening exercises beginning in the fall of 2015.
It also informed parents that that the council had determined 70 per cent of the surveys needed to be returned and that 70 per cent of those returned needed to be in support of the action.
“This is to ensure there is a ‘strong majority’ for the request going forward,” the survey indicated, and noted without a strong majority, the council would not move forward with the request.
“We made every effort to give our parent membership a voice regarding the Lord’s Prayer according to the new horizon policy,” indicated Tammy Janzen, School Parent Council chair, in a prepared statement. “The voice of the parents strongly supported requesting the Horizon School Board to consider reinstating the Lord’s Prayer as part of the opening exercises in the 2015 – 2016 school year.”
A decision to end the recitation of the prayer occurred in late 2013 after complaints from some local residents. At that time, there was no mechanism in place for HSD to deal with the issue of prayer in public school.
The resulting controversy made national headlines and shone a light on the issue of religion in publicly-funded public schools.
Last year, the board instituted a new policy, which would serve as a mechanism to either allow or disallow the practice depending on the wishes of parents.
“Part of the rationale there, I think, is that people were misinformed,” said Tymensen, noting while many concerned residents from other parts of the country may be under the assumption that just because a decision is rendered in one province means that it applies equally to Alberta, which is not the case.
“There are differences in laws. Alberta has an amendment to the (Canadian Constitution) through the Northwest Territories Ordinance of 1901. When our forefathers joined Confederation (in 1905), they specifically said they wanted that provision built in or they wouldn’t join Canada. So while that provision is built in for Alberta, it’s not necessarily built in for other provinces.”
He added the provision continues to have implications to this day.
Tymensen said more than half the schools in the division currently engage in morning prayer, but added the practice isn’t limited to HSD.
“There’s probably a large number of rural schools in Alberta where the activity is still happening. It’s not solely our jurisdiction.”
In voting to allow the prayer, Ward 4 Trustee Derek Baron said he supports parents right to choose whether to allow the practice or not.
“I agree that if the majority of people want it, then we should abide by their wishes,” he said.
At the board meeting, administration stated there are 175 families in the school, and 140 responded. Of those, 12 families said they did not want the practice in their school.
Tymensen said there are two way in which parents not wishing to take part in the practice at school can proceed, including having the child step out of the classroom for the duration of the prayer, or having the child in class but not participate in the prayer.
“Under the legislation, they have the ability to say, ‘I don’t want my child participating’,” he said. “That’s perfectly legal and perfectly acceptable.” He added parents wishing to go that route could be assured it would be done as discretely and quickly as possible.
“It’s not that suddenly children are being forced to engage in that practice when parents may choose not to want to have their children involved in it.”
He also noted the board had a legal obligation to ensure students are not ostracized or singled out for refusing to take part in the prayer.
“As a school, we have a legal obligation to maintain safe and caring environments,” said Tymensen. “There’s always a risk of anything, I can’t guarantee anything 100 per cent for safety, but I can tell you that safety, and fitting in, and not being ostracized is one of our primary objectives and primary responsibilities. Maintaining an environment where all kids are safe and accepted is hugely high on our priority list.”
“The board is committed to listening and responding to parents,” he said. “We recognize that there are times when not all parents will have the same opinion, and when that happens, the board is placed in a position where they have to make a decision that will not make all people happy, but they will do that to the best of their ability, guided by legislation and policy.”