By J.W. Schnarr
Students who do not take part in the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at Dr. Hamman will have the opportunity to be the go-to students to take attendance down to the office while the practice is observed, Horizon School Division school superintendant Wilco Tymensen told the board of trustees at their final regular meeting of the school year.
“The families that are making a request to remove their kids from the classrooms, the intent and practice for the school is that those kids will be taking the attendance down to the office,” he said. “Normally, that is a coveted, special, privileged position. When you have a small elementary student, often they are eager and excited, so if there are students who intend to opt out, the intent would be to just walk down to the office, and by the time they come back the prayer would be finished.”
The decision to re-institute the practice came from the board in April of this year following a request by the parent council, and resulting in a fevered public debate on the issue. A previous 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.
Tymensen said in spite of the active discussion through social media and traditional media, HSD has not received anything in writing wither for or against the decision.
“I can let you know right now that following your motion, the board has not received any formal written communication, either in support or against,” he said.
“There have been some phone calls,” he added. “But there has been no written communication one way or the other.”
Tymensen said the goal is to allow for the prayer in such a way that children not taking part will not be singled out in any way. To that end, the prayer will be performed sitting, so that it won’t be obvious which students are not participating.
“Part of our expectation is that we want to maintain a safe and caring environment,” he said. “We want to make sure we are trying to treat kids discretely and respectfully, so the intent of the school is that when the Lord’s Prayer is being said is to say it sitting down. Those kids who don’t want to say it can remain seated, and you can’t really tell which ones are actively involved and which ones aren’t.”
One question involved whether the children would stand for the national anthem, and Wilco said those schools participating in that morning ritual generally stand. The students would then take a seat for attendance, and it is presumed the school prayers would take place after.
The act of prayer in public schools is protected by the Constitution in the province of Alberta, but, in order to be allowed must fall under the confines of the Alberta Act, 1905, and Ordinance of the Northwest Territories, 1901. The School Ordinance of the Northwest Territories, 1901, the Alberta Human Rights Act, and the School Act contain a requirement that a student be permitted to be exempted from religious instruction and religious exercises. The Alberta Human Rights Act contains a requirement that parents receive notification of school subject matter dealing with religion.