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26 June 2011

Forgive Us Our Trespasses: Prayer in Public Schools

The Winnipeg Free Press recently ran a really good article about ongoing prayer in Manitoba's public school systems. While Canada does not have a constitutional separation of church and state, this prayer does violate provincial regulations.

Betende Hände, by Albrecht Dürer.

In supposedly secular schools across the province, teachers and principles read the Lord's Prayer to students, while irreligious pupils "are expected to stand quietly in their classrooms while their classmates recite the Lord's Prayer all around them". If parents don't want their children involved in sectarian religious exercises, they must sign forms to opt out.

Every one of these actions violates Manitoba's guidelines on religious exercises in secular public schools, says Dauphin lawyer and atheist Chris Tait.

But the province says its only recourse is to remind school divisions about guidelines -- after that, it's up to individuals to take their complaints to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission or the courts.

It was back in 1986 that Tait was suspended several times for refusing to stand during the reciting of the Lord's Prayer in his MacGregor Collegiate classroom. That led to a historic 1992 court case in which the Court of Queen's Bench struck down mandatory school prayer in Manitoba.

More than 20 Manitoba school divisions are violating the province's guidelines on religious exercises, said Tait. He filed Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act applications to school divisions and provided the results to the Free Press.

While the article itself is generally excellent, the comments section serves to deliver our daily helping of stupid, and Flora over at the Winnipeg Skeptics blog dives right in:

Kids today are worse than they used to be! This is because they took prayer out of schools! Umm, I'm pretty sure the point of this article is that prayer is still in schools even though it's not supposed to be. Most likely, you have a nostalgia bias, and remember things better than they were, and any real decline in good behaviour at school is due to other factors.

...

If you don't like it, you should go to a country that doesn't believe in God. Um no, first of all, a country cannot believe in God, only its people can. Furthermore, this particular country enforces the freedom of religious belief, INCLUDING atheism, agnosticism, and all other religions. There are very specific rules for how religion can enter public schools, and it is not allowed to be on school time. If you would prefer a country that does enforce such things, as pointed out by another commenter, I hear Iran is really nice for religious fundamentalism this type of year.

Imagine what it must feel like to be a Muslim or Jewish or Hindu or Jain or atheist child, forced to stand silently while the teacher and most of your classmates pray to a deity that in which you do not believe.

The removal of mandatory sectarian prayer is very important. Such forced religious worship is very divisive, and serves to further isolate students who belong to religious (or irreligious) minorities from their peers. Fallacious arguments from popularity or tradition aside, I see no justification for continuing the practice, and applaud Mr. Tait's efforts to see it abolished.

Religious freedom shouldn't be reserved for those in the majority.

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