The Awkward Silence

Trudy J. Morgan-Cole May/June 2000 Assemblies were held every few weeks at Holliston School in Saskatoon. Once the students had gathered in the gym, they were told to stand for "O Canada" and the Lord's Prayer. Elementary school student Max Haiven's family was Jewish, and he chose not to bow his head or repeat the Lord's Prayer, although he did stand with the other students.

One day a substitute teacher reprimanded Max for not bowing his head, telling him it was impolite. Young Max complained to the principal, who told him he could be exempted from the prayer. Not until much later did Max learn that he had the option of leaving the gym. Even then, he chose not to leave, since he didn't know where to go or with whom.(1)

Then, on July 27, 1999, retired judge Ken Halvorson ordered the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Board of Education to end its century-old practice of allowing public school teachers to say the Lord's Prayer in classrooms and school assemblies. With Halvorson's ruling, Saskatchewan became the fourth of Canada's 10 provinces to oppose prayer in public schools.

The Saskatchewan case began in 1993, when a group of nine parents, including Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, and atheists filed a complaint against the board's practice. Max Haiven was only one of many students for whom the use of the Lord's Prayer had caused confusion, misunderstanding, and discrimination. Parents of these students finally decided to take direct action.

One of those parents was Carl von Baeyer, a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. Von Baeyer had been interested in the issue of prayer in public schools even before his own two children entered school. As a member of the Unitarian Congregation of Saskatoon, he was concerned about issues of religious tolerance and felt that the use of the Lord's Prayer imposed the Christian religion on non-Christian children.

"In June 1986," Von Baeyer relates, "with another representative from the Unitarian congregation, I visited the director of education, Ray Fast, to discuss the issue and to present him with a copy of the Toronto school board's book of multifaith readings. He seemed to be interested and said he would consider distributing it to each school principal, but on follow-up we found that he did nothing further."(2)

Von Baeyer's daughter, Rebecca, attended Holliston School in Saskatoon. Holliston was one of the elementary schools in which the Lord's Prayer was used. Rebecca had shown sensitivity to issues of religious liberty from an early age: in grade 3 she was one of a group of students who met with the principal to request that the school stop using the Lord's Prayer at assemblies. The principal told the children that a majority of students in the school were Christian, and the prayer continued to be used.

"The law forbade discussion of the prayer," Carl von Baeyer points out, "so the words didn't mean much to our children, but they did understand that the school was making them say something that was contrary to their parents' religious views."(3) Rebecca understood that she had three choices if she did not want to participate in the Lord's Prayer: she could leave the room, remain silent, or recite a prayer of her choice. Once, in grade 8, she tried saying a prayer of her choice and was immediately reprimanded by a teacher. Leaving the room seemed both disrespectful and like a form of punishment. So Rebecca, like many other students of different faith backgrounds, stood silent during the Lord's Prayer, without bowing her head.(4)

Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s parents and students continued to raise the school prayer question with the board, but no change was made in the policy. Matters came to a head in 1993 when the official complaint was filed. But the case hovered in judicial limbo for six years on questions of jurisdiction.

The complaint was finally heard by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission in 1999, with Halvorson acting as a one-man board of inquiry. The school board defended its right to allow the Lord's Prayer on the grounds of a 1901 statute that permitted any Saskatchewan school board "to direct that the school be opened by the recitation of the Lord's Prayer."(5) In 1901 Saskatchewan was not yet part of Canada. But the constitutional legislation that brought Saskatchewan into confederation in 1905 protected the right of school boards to continue using the Lord's Prayer.

It was the wording of the legislation that caused the Saskatoon board to lose its case. The board's policy was not to "direct" that teachers start the school day with prayer, but rather to "encourage" and "support" the use of prayer. Judge Halvorson wrote in his decision that the board had "delegated its responsibility to the discretion of teachers by a policy statement using these weasel words."(6) Halvorson's conclusion was that while the board's right to "direct" that prayer be used is, in fact, constitutionally guaranteed, Saskatoon teachers cannot decide on their own to use the prayer unless the board specifically "directs" them to do so. Rather than order teachers to recite the Lord's Prayer in class, the Saskatoon board should, Halvorson felt, do away with the practice altogether, rather than continuing to "encourage" and "support" it.

To the parents who launched the complaint, and to others who opposed the use of the Lord's Prayer, Halvorson's ruling was a victory of sorts. Though he could not overrule the board's constitutional right, Halvorson made it clear that the board's choice to exercise that right was outdated and discriminatory. "Judge Halvorson's point was that the tribunal had no jurisdiction to overturn the provisions of the constitution; he did, however, have the jurisdiction to quash later discriminatory provincial and school board policies, which he did," says Carl von Baeyer. "I would be happier if he had the wider powers, but I think he did what he could given the way the law is set up."(7)

In the 1999-2000 school year, the Saskatoon school board suspended use of the Lord's Prayer, at least temporarily, while it searched for other options. Those options ranged from requiring the Lord's Prayer every day in all classrooms, to requiring nothing at all, to replacing the Lord's Prayer with some nondenominational creed that would be acceptable to people of all faiths. Neither side chose to appeal Judge Halvorson's decision. "There is great pressure on the school board from the religious right," Carl von Baeyer observes.(8)

The "religious right" to which Von Baeyer refers includes such groups as the Canada Family Action Coalition, a nondenominational grassroots political activist group. Though not directly involved in the Saskatoon case, the CFAC describes Halvorson's ruling as "completely outrageous."

"What it really shows," says Peter Stock, the coalition's national affairs director, "is that the Human Rights Commission is completely out of control. They'll step on any right, any freedom, in support of their politically correct worldview. The 1905 constitutional act that brought Saskatchewan into confederation explicitly preserved the right to use the Lord's Prayer-yet in this case an unelected bureaucrat ruled that that right can be taken away."(9)

Despite the statute protecting use of the Lord's Prayer, prayer in public schools is not a widespread practice in Saskatchewan. Of the province's 550 public school classrooms, only about 20 percent actually had prayers at the time of Judge Halvorson's decision.(10) Of those that did use the prayer, only schools in the Saskatoon area were directly affected by the Human Rights Commission's ruling, but it will probably have an impact on the rest of the province as well.

As for the rest of Canada, the provinces of Manitoba, British Columbia, and Ontario have already ruled against prayer in public schools. Other provinces have not addressed the issue in the courts, but many don't perceive it as a problem. Nova Scotia, for example, is one province that has never banned school prayer. The issue "has never been raised by our board of directors, our executive, or in the courts of this province," said Frank Barteaux, of the Nova Scotia School Boards Association, and Education Department spokesman Doug Hadley agreed.(11) But, as one Nova Scotia teacher pointed out, that may be because "I don't know of anyone who [recites the Lord's Prayer] in their classroom."(12)

But that silence on the subject of prayer may not last long. Several Alberta school boards are currently considering reinstating the Lord's Prayer at the same time as the national anthem is sung. And in Ontario, where the school prayer question was settled in the courts in 1988, the Lord's Prayer has once again become a topic of debate. In September 1999, 97 Ontario municipalities signed a petition asking the Ontario minister of education "to direct schools to bring back the [Lord's] Prayer."(13) Some school prayer advocates in Ontario are also calling for the reading of the Ten Commandments in schools.

Jane Weist, a public school trustee on the Durham, Ontario, school board, introduced a motion in the spring of 1999 to reinstate the Lord's Prayer into classroom exercises. When a minority of trustees fought it, a compromise was reached. The board formed a committee with leaders from 60 groups to prepare a book of inspirational prayers for use in the schools. The final book is due to be completed and reviewed by the board in spring 2000.(14)

Keith Knight, communications director of the Presbyterian Church in Canada, writes in a Toronto Star column that the Lord's Prayer would have a place in classrooms only "if all those students and the teacher truly believed what they pray.... Those who advocate a return of the Lord's Prayer to the classroom," he writes, "live with the mistaken notion that our society in general and the public school system specifically are indeed Christian." In fact, Knight argues, "Canada is no longer considered a Christian nation."(15)

For the parents who filed the Saskatoon complaint, the rights of Jewish children, Muslim children, and children of many other non-Christian faiths were violated when a Christian prayer was used in the classroom. In his attempts to discourage Saskatoon school principals from using the Lord's Prayer, Carl von Baeyer was often told that surveys showed the majority of parents supported the use of the prayer. Von Baeyer questions the truth of this claim, but even if true, he says, it doesn't justify use of the Lord's Prayer.

"A constitutional democracy bases its policies on the will of the majority in some issues but not in all issues," he says. "Human rights legislation moves society ahead when the majority doesn't care. The fact that a majority of Germans in the early 1930s supported Hitler did not make his policies right. And the fact that a majority of people favor religious discrimination does not make it right."(16)

Those on the opposite side of the school prayer debate also claim that the central issue is one of freedom of religion. "The constitution guarantees freedom of religion," points out CFAC's Peter Stock. "There's no constitutional guarantee of freedom from religion, which is what these people are seeking." Stock argues that the right of all children to a moral, values-based education is at stake. "We're making a huge mistake if we abandon our Judeo-Christian heritage. When we remove religion from the classroom, it doesn't create a vacuumCanother morality moves in to take its place. There is always a moral basis to whatever is taught in school-the question is, whose morality is it?"(17)

Lois Sweet would agree with Stock's final statement. Sweet is the author of a comprehensive 1997 study of religion in Canadian education called God in the Classroom. "Secularism, or secular humanism, is also a value system and is often embraced as a kind of religion," Sweet points out. "Yet secularists are usually blind to the religious nature of their beliefs, arguing that schools must necessarily be secular because secularism is 'neutral.' This is an illusion that should be challenged.... What seems difficult for opponents of education in the classroom to understand is that education is never valueless. Not only what is taught and not taught, but how it is taught, and by whom, conveys a set of values. The question is: Whose values?"(18)

When Saskatchewan joined Canada in 1905, the answer to that question seemed simple. The values to be taught were those of the dominant religious group in society: Christians. A century later, in a far more multicultural society, that assumption has to be challenged-and has been, over and over, in courts and legislatures. But the question of what should replace it has never been successfully answered.

Though Christian groups such as the CFAC often refer to Canada's "Judeo-Christian heritage," and "Judeo-Christian values," the fact is that Jewish faith communities were among the most active in trying to persuade the Saskatoon school board to stop using the Lord's Prayer. In fact, the Jewish Congregation Agudas Israel, in Saskatoon, has been working on this issue since 1953. Both the Congregation and the League for Human Rights of B'nai B'rith Canada had intervenor status in the Saskatoon hearing.

Grant Scharfstein, the lawyer for Congregation Agudas Israel, told the hearing that when he attended public school in a small town in Saskatchewan, a teacher told him he did not have to say the Lord's Prayer. Scharfstein said he would say the prayer; on his way home from school another student punched him and called him a "dirty Jew."(19) Rabbi Roger Pavey told the inquiry that the Lord's Prayer "was purely Christian and certainly not accepted by other religions." While Pavey favors promoting spirituality in the schools, his opinion was that "imposing the Lord's Prayer does not attain that goal."(20)

The problem that remains unanswered: How do we attain that goal? Do Canadian parents wish secularism to be the dominant religion in their children's schools? Many don't, yet the puzzling dilemma remains. Is it possible to promote spirituality and values without favoring a dominant religion and discriminating against those who don't practice that religion?

Lois Sweet believes it is possible-not easy, but possible. In God in the Classroom, she writes: "Who knows where a passionate, informed public debate on this issue could lead? I would hope it would spark a commitment to offering education about religion in the public schools.... Accommodating religious difference within a public system through teaching about it, acknowledging and honoring holy days, and respecting religious symbols are important steps toward mutual understanding, healthy equality, and integration. The new fabric we weave could well produce a Canada . . . that could truly be a living example of what's possible when a liberal democracy takes the pluralist ideal seriously."(21)

But so far, attempts to present a truly pluralist view of spirituality in Canadian schools have not been very successful. The book of multifaith readings that Carl von Baeyer showed to a Saskatoon board official in 1986 has since been withdrawn by the Toronto school board that introduced it. Parents protested the use of the readings: some did not want their children exposed to the prayers of other religions, while others did not want their own religion's prayers being used by nonbelievers.

While multicultural approaches draw protests from parents of many faiths, attempts to find a prayer or reading neutral enough to please everyone end up pleasing very few. According to Toronto evangelist Ken Campbell, "in 1995, national councils of Islamic, Jewish, Native, and Christian faiths approved a generic prayer to the 'God of Confederation.'" In Campbell's view, "it is most appropriate that a prayer to the God of Confederation be mandated in Canadian schools."(22) But to many Canadians such a "generic" prayer is watered-down spirituality at best. At worst, it's what Carl von Baeyer calls "an embarrassing recital." The "God of Confederation" prayer was proposed to the Saskatoon board, but, von Baeyer comments, "fortunately they did not see this as the solution to their problems."(23)

In February 2000, the Saskatoon board drew up a proposal suggesting that teachers begin class with a song, story, reading, thought for the day, or short discussion period. "The selection may have as a root source a holy book, a spiritual legend or spiritual literature, but must not be a direct quote from any such source," the proposal said, technically keeping it within the guidelines recommended by Halvorson. After drafting the proposal, the board hoped to get feedback from parents and community members.(24)

While the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission has, for now, dealt with the question of the Lord's Prayer in Saskatoon schools, the broader debate about religion in Canada's public schools continues. Minority rights, multiculturalism, freedom of religion, values and spirituality in education-all these concepts are part of this complex debate. But many parents, including some in Saskatoon, are simply glad that their children do not have to stand in awkward silence as "O Canada" is followed by "Our Father, who art in heaven . . ."

Trudy J. Morgan-Cole, a freelance writer in St. John's, Newfoundland, spent 11 years as a teacher in Canada.


(1) Ken Halvorson, In the Matter of the Human Rights Code and In the Matter of Complaints on December 21 and 22, 1993, by Riaz Fancy, Irum Fancy, et al, against the Board of Education of Sasakatoon, School Division No. 13 of Saskatchewan (Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, 1999), p. 5.
(2) Von Baeyer, Carl. Interview with author, Dec. 14, 1999.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Halvorson, pp. 6, 7.
(5) John Saunders, "Schools to Banish Lord's Prayer: Saskatoon Board Forfeits 1901 Right," The Globe and Mail, July 28, 1999, p. A3.
(6) Halvorson, p. 24.
(7) Von Baeyer interview.
(8) Ibid.
(9) Peter Stock, interview with author, Jan. 20, 2000.
(10) Ibid.
(11) Tom McCoag, "Prayer Ruling Likely Won't Affect N.S.: Saskatchewan Rights Commission Bans Lord's Prayer in Classroom," Halifax Chronicle-Herald, July 30, 1999, p. A7.
(12) Ibid.
(13) "Petition Pushes Lord's Prayer in Schools," Toronto Star, Sept. 2, 1999, p. A4.
(14) Canada Family Action Coalition, e-mail news release, January 2000.
(15) Keith Knight, "Our Father, Who Art in Classrooms," Toronto Star, Sept. 18, 1999, p. L14.
(16) Von Baeyer interview.
(17) Stock interview.
(18) Lois Sweet, God in the Classroom: The Controversial Issue of Religion in Canada's Schools (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, Inc., 1997), pp. 7, 13.
(19) Halverson, p. 10.
(20) Ibid., p. 11.
(21) Sweet, pp. 252, 253.
(22) Carla Yu, "The Tyranny of the Minority," Alberta Report, Aug. 9, 1999, p. 42.
(23) Von Baeyer interview.
(24) "Board may replace Lord's Prayer in classrooms," The Telegram, February 2000.

Article Author: Trudy J. Morgan-Cole