Religion in School 101

U of T professor Ed Morgan has an excellent op-ed in the Globe on the topic of the place of religion in Canadian public schools, which reviews the relevant case law.

Schools, he explains, cannot themselves endorse religious beliefs qua beliefs (though they can teach about them as facts): “A state agency simply cannot tacitly endorse denominational prayer, especially in a school environment.” The key reference on this point (which he does not name, according to the conventions of the op-ed genre) is Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board of Education.

However, schools may not censor the expression of religious beliefs by their students, as happened recently in a Nova Scotia case about which I blogged here, short of the expression in question becoming hate speech. That expression of belief in one set of religious canons is often (perhaps always) also the expression, implicit or explicit, of belief that (all or most) other sets of religious canons is wrong does not make it hate speech.

Prof. Morgan concludes:

In short, Canadian law generally restricts school authorities from promoting religion, even passively by holding voluntary classes and prayers. It generally does not restrict students from promoting religion, even actively by wearing it on their sleeve or chest. That’s a lesson school boards and principals need to study.

Indeed.

UPDATE: There are two qualifications to be made to prof. Morgan’s exposé.

First, religious speech in schools, at least by teachers (and indeed religious speech by teachers outside schools), can be curtailed not only when it becomes criminal hate speech, as defined by the Supreme Court in R. v. Keegstra, a case prof. Morgan quotes, but also when at amounts to discrimination in human rights law sense. Speech that creates “a ‘poisoned’ environment within the school system” can amount to discrimination, as the Supreme Court held in Ross v. New Brunswick School District No. 15, to which prof. Morgan also refers. Although the case is about teachers, and they can surely be held to higher standards than students, it seems reasonable to believe that school authorities have the power, and indeed the duty under human rights law, to prevent the school from becoming a “poisoned environment” as a result of students’, and not just teachers’, speech. However, prof. Morgan is right to argue that this is still a demanding standard, and mere expression of religious belief, even fervent expression, does not meet it.

And second, the Constitution Act, 1867, protects those public religious schools that existed at its entry into force. Indeed, it obliged Ontario and Québec to maintain, respectively, public Catholic and Protestant schools. The requirement is no longer in force as to Québec, following a constitutional amendment in 1997. This is an anachronism today, but in 1867, it was an essential guarantee, without which Confederation might not have happened.

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