Alberta Human Rights Commission seeks to appeal Muslim school prayer spat at Supreme Court

Another case to watch:

The Alberta Human Rights Commission is hoping the Supreme Court will hear its appeal in the case of two Calgary Muslim students who were not allowed to pray at a non-denominational private school.

Sarmad Amir and Naman Siddiqui, who were in Grade 9 and 10 at Webber Academy in 2011, told the human rights commission that praying is mandatory in their Sunni religion. They said the school told them their praying, which requires bowing and kneeling, was too obvious and went against the academy’s non-denominational nature.

The human rights tribunal ruled the school’s policy was too rigid and it could have accommodated the students without violating its secular status.

That decision was upheld by the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench. The school then took the matter to the Alberta Court of Appeal.

It overturned the commission’s original decision ordering the school to pay a $26,000 fine for discriminatory behaviour and said another hearing was required because Webber Academy raised new issues under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Webber Academy president Neil Webber said Monday the human rights commission is seeking leave to appeal the decision.

“We should know I think by Christmas whether or not they have been successful. It took them quite a while to make the decision,” said Webber.

“We doubt that they will be successful. My information from our lawyer and also from a former member of the Supreme Court is that roughly 90 per cent of applications for leave … are turned down.”

No one at the Alberta Human Rights Commission immediately responded to a request for comment.

Webber said he hopes to preserve the secular nature of the school, which has about 1,000 students. He said the school has always made it clear to incoming students and their parents there is no space in the school for praying. It has received only two requests for prayer space in its 22 years of operations and both were denied.

He said even if the Supreme Court refuses to hear an appeal, the matter is far from over.

“Then the human rights commission has a choice — they can have another hearing or they could just drop the whole thing. I don’t know what the probability of dropping the whole thing could be.”

Source: Alberta Human Rights Commission seeks to appeal Muslim school prayer spat at Supreme Court

Chris Selley: Want to be atheist? Be coherent first

Chris Selley on Webber Academy losing its case against no prayer allowed on its premises:

But it’s not hard to see why they lost. Webber claims visible religious practice is a direct affront to its central ethos, but its ethos doesn’t seem to be very coherent: It allows students to wear turbans and hijabs, for example. The school tried to distinguish between garments as “a state of ‘being’” and prayer as “a visible activity,” which the tribunal kiboshed on principle; but in any event the activity wouldn’t have been “visible” had the school provided a private space. And Neil Webber, the school’s president, certainly did himself no favours by suggesting a student quickly crossing himself might not be a problem.

There was confusion as to what was allowed and what wasn’t: At the time they were enrolled, the students’ parents say they were assured prayer space could be made available; the school claims the exact opposite. In fact various teachers were happy to find them prayer space at first. And the confusion is understandable, considering it all rests on an interpretation of the term “non-denominational institution” that precludes prayer. That simply isn’t what “non-denominational” means. Per Oxford, it means “not restricted as regards religious denomination” (my italics).

A school that was more coherently dedicated to a religion-free environment might fare better

Webber is appealing. Sarah Burton, a lawyer at the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre, told CBC she wouldn’t be surprised if it wound up at the Supreme Court. But Richard Moon, a University of Windsor law professor who has written extensively on religious freedom, thinks the tribunal got it right. “The school purports to be open to students from all backgrounds,” he notes — indeed its statement of “beliefs and values” promises “an atmosphere where young people of many faiths and cultures feel equally at home” — “and so [it] must accommodate the students’ religious practices … if [it] can do so without great hardship.”

A school that was more coherently dedicated to a religion-free environment might fare better, however. “There is no reason to think that a strong, sincere and sufficiently comprehensive secular belief would not merit protection,” says Victor Muñiz-Fraticelli, a law and political science professor at McGill University: “a strong and principled atheism,” for example; or the French laïcité model promoted by the Agence pour l’Enseignement Français à l’Étranger — a French government agency that accredits francophone schools abroad, including several in Canada. Moon agrees, suggesting a “Bertrand Russell School” or “Richard Dawkins Academy” would also have better luck in the courts.

That’s cold comfort for Webber Academy. But the good news is that any school clearly articulating a “no prayer” policy is very unlikely to attract students for whom prayer is a daily obligation. And if it did, I’d like to think most people would consider any complainers far more unreasonable than the policy.

Chris Selley: Want to be atheist? Be coherent first