Derek Ross is executive director and general counsel for the Christian Legal Fellowship, a national association of law students and lawyers, and an intervener in Quebec’s Bill 21 litigation.
Quebec’s education minister recently announced that the provincial government is prohibiting the use of public school facilities for student-initiated prayer. The same day, the National Assembly unanimously passed a motion stating that providing places for prayer on public school premises goes against the principle of secularism.
While the government has yet to issue its official directive, the education minister has indicated that it will apply to all school facilities, and that students who wish to pray are to do so “silently” and “discreetly.” It seems, then, that Quebec students may no longer be permitted to gather for voluntary prayer within public school walls.
This marks the Quebec’s government’s latest effort to advance laïcité, its official policy of secularism entrenched in Bill 21. That law prohibits the wearing of religious symbols in various public sector jobs, effectively excluding many openly religious citizens from public service, including teachers. Its constitutionality has been challenged, and is currently under review by Quebec’s Court of Appeal.
But a ban on noticeable student prayer in school spaces would go even further than Bill 21. That law says nothing about the ability of students to pray together in school.
The Constitution does have something to say about it, however.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which as part of our Constitution supersedes any other law or government policy, guarantees freedom of religion. The Supreme Court has stated that this protects the right to “declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.”
The Quebec Charter also guarantees freedom of religion, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifies that the right to manifest one’s religion applies not just alone or in private, but “in community with others and in public.” Identical language is found in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which both Canada and Quebec have ratified.
In short, the right to pray openly, and with others, is a fundamental human right.
This is not to say that authorities can’t implement certain rules surrounding student activities on school premises, including those related to group prayer. However, any limitations on students’ religious freedom must be “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” according to the Canadian Charter.
In the words of the Supreme Court, “Freedom means that, subject to such limitations as are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others, no one is to be forced to act in a way contrary to his beliefs or his conscience.”
A policy prohibiting students from praying in school spaces (other than “silently”) does not meet this standard. Nor does it advance religious neutrality. True neutrality is achieved not by silencing prayer, but by accommodating students of all faiths, and none, to participate fully and equally in our public education system.
In the leading case on religious neutrality, the Supreme Court emphasized that “a neutral public space does not mean the homogenization of private players in that space” and that the state may not “promote the participation of believers to the exclusion of non-believers or vice versa.”
Students should be free to gather together for spiritual support as they navigate life’s challenges. Prayer offers students of faith a source of hope and strength to help overcome adversity. This should be welcomed for students who freely seek it, not viewed as a hazard for authorities to guard against.
While Bill 21 doesn’t ban student-led prayer in school spaces, such a move would seem to be a natural by-product of its messaging. Bill 21 essentially treats religion as something to be suppressed and removed from public life. Once it became a problem for teachers to be openly religious, it seemed only a matter of time for it to become an issue for students too. And if students’ prayers offend the state’s vision of secularism, which of their expressions of faith might be restricted next?
A Quebec court recently commented that giving the middle finger is “a God-given, Charter-enshrined right that belongs to every red-blooded Canadian.” That case arose in a different context, but the point is that freedom of expression is not conditional on others finding it inoffensive.
If an adult has the right to express anger with outstretched fingers, surely students have the right to express love with folded hands, or bended knees. If any right is God-given, that one is.