More about school prayer in Moosejaw

Dusti Hennenfent is a grain farmer just outside Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan where she lives with
her family. Hennenfent and her husband have two school-aged children who attend Lindale Elementary School in Moose Jaw. One morning in the fall of 2015, Hennenfent arrived at the school during Lindale’s daily broadcast over the school public address system. It was at this moment that she realized prayer was part of the morning routine at Lindale School. Hennenfent was shocked and confused by this practice: “I did not understand the purpose of a public school’s daily broadcast of a religion-specific prayer,” said Hennenfent. “I did not understand the practice to have anything to do with education. It looked to me to be religious worship,” she explained.
Hennenfent was also surprised at the lack of communication between the school and its
students and parents about the daily broadcast of the Lord’s Prayer. Hennenfent said she could not recall any explanation offered by Lindale’s administration for incorporating the Lord’s Prayer into the daily operations of the school. Neither Hennenfent nor the parents she spoke with were presented with information about this practice when their children were enrolled at Lindale. “There was no discussion, acknowledgement, or information at all. It was presumed to be a non-issue.” She also pointed out that the Saskatchewan Education Act 1995, Section 182(3) grants public schools the option to begin each school day with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer or reading of Bible passages “without comment or explanation.” Hennenfent explained how this law precludes any discussion or debate on the part of school administrators or teachers about the Lord’s Prayer.

Hennenfent was also unaware that students who chose not to observe the religious ritual were
given the option to leave the classroom each time the prayer was broadcast. Hennenfent remarked that this option had little value given that the Lord’s Prayer could still be heard in the school’s hallways as well as all other areas of the school. She also doubted that any student would voluntarily choose to segregate themselves from their classmates at a time when fitting in with one’s peers is of the utmost importance. “I felt that this pointed to the school having at best a half-hearted attempt to offer the illusion of choice,” she concluded.

Hennenfent clarified that the issue is less about having prayer in the school and more about respecting students of all religious backgrounds. “Where is the respect for each student’s right to Freedom of and from Religion?” asked Hennenfent. “Did the school assume that all students at the school were Christian? And if they weren’t Christian that perhaps they should be? And if they weren’t Christian that it should be necessary and acceptable to require them to identify as such to all students and staff on a daily basis? It seemed like such a blatant lack of respect for individual student diversity and rights.”

In October of 2015, Hennenfent approached Lindale’s school principal, Heather Gobbett, for more information about of the daily broadcast of the Lord’s Prayer. Gobbett explained the Lord’s Prayer is a time-honoured tradition at Lindale that is supported by the Parent Council. Gobbett advised Hennenfent to compose a formal letter to Lindale School if she wanted the daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer to be reconsidered.

Hennenfent prepared a letter addressed to Gobbett. In the letter, she wrote “…I find the daily broadcast of a Christian-specific religious prayer at a public school a violation of each student’s fundamental right of ‘freedom of conscience and religion’ as stated in Section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.” Hennenfent further commented in the letter, “I must admit my disappointment that a public school in this day and age would continue to find daily school-sponsored
religious worship appropriate.” She finished off the letter by requesting that Lindale cease to broadcast the Lord’s Prayer every morning and instead replace the prayer with a moment of silence or reflection for students who choose to pray privately. To draw further attention to her concern and highlight the importance of this issue, Hennenfent shared copies of the letter with Tony Baldwin, the Director of the Prairie South School Division No. 210; Don Morgan, the Minister of Education; and Julie McRae, the Deputy Minister of Education.

In response to the letter, Lindale School sought the input from the parents of children who attend Lindale School. A letter from Gobbett and the School Community Council requested feedback from parents regarding the daily recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and whether the practice should continue. The results of the survey were shared in a subsequent school newsletter which noted that 91% of the parents who responded agreed that Lindale School should continue to incorporate the Lord’s
Prayer into the morning routine at Lindale School. Gobbett notified parents that she intended to share the survey outcome with the School Board and request that the Board allow Lindale School to continue with its current practice.

Unsatisfied with the outcome, Hennenfent quickly followed up with the School Board before a final decision could be made. She contacted Prairie South School Division No. 210 and asked to be addedo the Board’s agenda for the upcoming meeting in January of 2016. “I see this as an issue of respectingall students regardless of their belief system,” said Hennenfent in her presentation to the School Board. “As Lindale School has always made such a point of ensuring its students feel welcome and included, frankly I am surprised they would prioritize the opinions of parents rather than respect, support, and celebrate the diverse perspectives of its student body,” she continued. “You see, this isn’t about the parents. This isn’t about the staff. This isn’t about tradition. This issue is about each and every single
student at Lindale School. By directing Lindale School to discontinue broadcasting the Lord’s Prayer, the Board will not deny one single student his or her fundamental Charter rights. The same cannot be said if the Board directs Lindale School to continue with the Lord’s Prayer each day.” She reminded the Board
that while the Education Act allowed and protected the School Board’s decision to include the Lord’sPrayer into the school’s daily operations, it did not require the Board to make that choice. During her presentation, Hennenfent reintroduced the idea of having a moment of silence or reflection as a solution, as opposed to broadcasting the Lord’s Prayer over the public address system.

The School Board came to a decision on the issue after Hennenfent delivered her speech. TheBoard voted six to three in favour of keeping the Lord’s Prayer in Lindale School. Hennenfent was not dissuaded by the Board’s verdict, though, and decided to reach out to her Member of the Legislative Assembly’s office as a next step. Unfortunately, Hennenfent did not receive support for her concerns: “I was repeatedly told that the Saskatchewan education legislation supported the school’s and the School Board’s decision and there was nothing further to be addressed.”

In February of 2016, Hennenfent took her concerns even further. She registered a complaint with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission (SHRC) on behalf of her children. As a result, a mediation session was held between Hennenfent and the School Board in August of 2016. “It was a non-eventful discussion of where we all stood on the issue,” she said. With Hennenfent’s agreement, a follow up meeting took place between the School Board and School Board Trustees to confer on the
matter before responding any further to the SHRC complaint. The following month, Hennenfent received Lindale School’s newsletter. The newsletter informed readers that the Lord’s Prayers would be replaced by a moment of silence for its students. Hennenfent consequently withdrew her SHRC
complaint based on this outcome.

When asked what she thought about the significance of the outcome, Hennenfent said it brought prayer in public schools under scrutiny. “I feel that the media attention and controversy my concerns brought up made more people consider this impact of this practice in public schools,” she said. “It started people thinking about it. It changed some people’s mind on the idea of prayer in public school. It made people aware that it is supported in our legislation.” While replacing a religion-specific prayer with a moment of silence is a step in the right direction, Hennenfent thought more could be done. “I would like to see the Saskatchewan Education Act and the Saskatchewan Act modified in a number of areas regarding religion and education,” said Hennenfent. “Much of the legislation was
enacted more than 100 years ago. So much has changed since then, why haven’t our laws?” Furthermore, Hennenfent explained she is supportive of a single secular school system. “I personally think a united single secular school system would be beneficial in Saskatchewan. I would like to see less
division. We wouldn’t divide our kids into different schools due to their parents’ political affiliation. Why divide them over religious affiliation?” A website and petition have been created to raise awareness of the advantages of one school system (see below).

That said, Hennenfent sees social and political barriers that stand in the way of implementing
these changes. “To me, the biggest hindrance to these kinds of changes is the social mindset that in
order to give and respect one person’s rights that another’s right will be taken away or diminished, [but]
that is so rarely the case,” said Hennenfent. She elaborates, “(…) many in our society still mistake their
privilege for rights.” Hennenfent also noted the current political climate in Saskatchewan as a major
barrier for change. “I believe there is still an underlying and unspoken pride in Saskatchewan being the
‘bible belt’ of Canada which has it lagging behind the rest of the country when it comes to encouraging
and respecting the diversity of its residents,” explained Hennenfent. “Politicians aren’t willing to risk
votes in order to stand up for all residents of Saskatchewan, so they pander to the majority,” she
remarked.
Hennenfent talked about her personal experiences during her battle for inclusivity at Lindale
School. She recalled the public’s reaction when her story was first published on the front page of her
local newspaper, “Boy, did that stir up controversy!” she exclaimed. Still, Hennenfent was glad to
accommodate all media requests in order to bring the attention of others to this important issue. She
described a downside to the publicity, though: “(…) I had to be willing to have people discuss me publicly
on social media and in our community. I knew that would be part of this journey if I chose to take it on
and I felt comfortable with my ability to deal with it.” Also, Hennenfent’s family and friends refrained as
much as possible from responding to personal attacks aimed at her on social media for the reason that
she wanted to keep the focus on the issue at hand. “(…) This wasn’t about me, it was about the rights of
all Canadians,” explained Hennenfent. “Luckily I have a pretty (really) thick skin and I was able to take
the attitude that whatever crappy and mean things people posted about me publicly was merely a
reflection of their character not mine,” she said. Hennenfent also mentioned receiving many positive
messages on social media. “After I was in the media, I received hundreds of messages from friends and
strangers on social media, hundreds!” she said. “But honestly most of the messages were that of
support from people around Canada and United States, but also around the world! I received messages
of support from people from as far away as Vietnam, Germany, and New Zealand!”
Hennenfent reflected on how things have been since the issue at Lindale School had resolved.
“I’d be lying if I said things went back to ‘normal’ after this, though,” she said. “Sadly, I don’t feel near as
comfortable in my community anymore. I certainly no longer feel welcome in my children’s school.” The
attention generated from the controversy affected her family as well. “Our family has lost (and made
new) friends through this time,” she said. “My kids and family sure learned a lot as well.” One important
life lesson her family has learned was “about the social price to be paid for standing up for what is right
and important.”
Hennenfent offered advice to others who want to advocate for secularist causes. She advised
that one should prepare by seeking out advice from individuals who are knowledgeable about the issue.

“There are so many areas to get information and lots of people willing to talk to you and give advice. Get
as much as you can. Educate yourself about the legislation and social aspects of the issue you are
advocating. That knowledge will get you far!” Hennenfent also offered guidance on the interpersonal
aspect of advocating for a cause, “(…) respond, don’t react, to people,” she said. “Don’t take it
personally. Talk about the issue, write about the issue. Don’t be mean, rude, or disrespectful, (…) don’t
let emotion distract you.”
The Centre for Inquiry Canada members in Saskatchewan are proud to support Dusti in her
successful outcome on this issue and particularly in consciousness-raising for Saskatchewan residents.
CFIC Saskatoon Branch Manager, Kendra Getty, commented, “this is an excellent example of why we
have human rights legislation. Neither tradition nor a majority vote of parents at a school can be used as
an excuse to violate human rights. Protection of all people begins with favouring none; therefore, any
action by government that excludes a part of the community must be rejected.”
At the time of writing (July of 2017), many Canadian provinces are evaluating the place of
religion in public schools and the use of public money to fund Catholic schools. Articles on these topics
are found below.
Jocelyne Lemoine, CFI Canada volunteer, with Blythe Nilson, CFI Canada Science Chair

Jocelyne_Photo

 

Further Inquiry
1. One School System for Saskatchewan
2. One System Petition
3. Globe and Mail: Ontario Catholic high schools shouldn’t press students to study religion: settlement
4. Grassroots group plans legal challenge against separate school funding
5. Three schools ditch Lord’s Prayer to avoid human-rights case
6. Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association to appeal ruling on funding

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