Follow Instructions

School prayer is unconstitutional ― even in Alberta and Saskatchewan

A couple of months ago, Benjamin Oliphant wrote, on the Policy Options blog, about a controversy over school prayer in Alberta: some schools still start their days with the Lord’s Prayer, which some parents oppose. Constitutionally, Mr. Oliphant pointed out, the matter is somewhat complicated. A Twitter discussion ensued, but I don’t think that anyone ever took the time to write a follow-up blog post. Now, according to a report in the National Post, the same issue arises in Saskatchewan, giving me an excuse for doing so, however belatedly. (I should note that the parent who is contesting the school prayer seems not to be making a constitutional case, but rather “believes the recital of the prayer may be harmful and has started a petition asking for amendments to” relevant legislation. I express no views on the prayer’s harm, and only consider its constitutionality.)

As Mr. Oliphant explained, on the one hand, courts have held, starting in Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board of Education, 65 OR (2d) 641 (On CA), that school prayer ― even if individual students are not obliged to attend it ― is contrary to the religious freedom guarantee of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. On the other, the constitutionally entrenched legislation that created the province of Alberta ― and Saskatchewan as well ― protected “any right or privilege with respect to separate schools which any class of persons have at the date of the passing of [that legislation] … or with respect to religious instruction in any public or separate school.” That provision (section 17 in both the Alberta Act and the Saskatchewan Act) referred to The School Ordinance of the North-West Territories, which specifically provided that, despite a general ban on religious instruction in public schools except in the last half hour of a school day, it would “be permissible for the board of any district to direct that the school be opened by the recitation of the Lord’s prayer.” (Subs. 137(2)) Hence Mr. Oliphant’s question: does the long-standing principle that one part of the constitution (such as the Charter) cannot abrogate another (such as the Alberta Act or the Saskatchewan Act) immunize the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in those provinces’ schools? )

The answer, in my view, turns on the meaning of the phrase “religious instruction” in section 17 of the Alberta Act and the Saskatchewan Act. If “religious instruction” includes the recitation of the Lord’s prayer, then section 17 presumably protects the right of the local school authorities “to direct” the recitation of the prayer, as part of the general protection of rights “with respect to religious instruction at any public school.” If, however, the prayer is not a form of “religious instruction,” then its recitation falls outside the scope of the protection granted by section 17.

Is, then, the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer “religious instruction”? A prayer is, as the Supreme Court recently had occasion to confirm ― against Québec Court of Appeal’s opinion to the contrary ― undoubtedly a religious exercise. But is it “instruction”? Note that, if a court called upon to decide the constitutional question adopted the originalist approach to constitutional interpretation which, I have argued, the Supreme Court’s majority recently took when discussing legislative bilingualism in Alberta in Caron v. Alberta, 2015 SCC 56, it would need to consider the meaning of “instruction” in 1905, when the Alberta Act and the Saskatchewan Act were enacted. Perhaps the meaning of the phrase has changed in the last century. But I rather doubt it in this case.

As a matter of ordinary meaning of the word in this context, it seems to me that a prayer is not instruction because it does not teach the students who hear it anything about religion. It is telling, I think, though not dispositive, that section 182(3) of the Saskatchewan’s Education Act, which authorizes the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of school day, specifies that it is to be recited “without comment or explanation.” That’s not how one would normally go about “instructing” the students in religion generally, or in the meaning or significance of the Lord’s Prayer specifically.

The legislative context in which the phrase “religious instruction” is used in The School Ordinance also suggests that it does not encompass the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The general provision on religious instruction is section 137 (or what would now be numbered as subsection 137(1)), which has the heading “religious instruction.” The exception for prayer is provided for separately, in subsection 137(2), under the heading “Time for the Lord’s Prayer.” For its part, the following section, under the (admittedly ambiguous) heading “Attendance not compulsory during religious exercise,” provides that “[a]ny child shall have the privilege of leaving the school room at the time at which religious instruction is commenced as provided for in the next preceding section … if the parents or guardians do desire.” I think it is reasonably clear that that the idea is that the student is free to go home once the half-hour reserved for religious teaching at the end of a school day begins ― rather than leave the school as it is being “opened” by the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and then return.

As a result, I don’t think that the constitutional protection for “religious instruction” in the schools of Alberta and Saskatchewan extends to the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Unlike the actual teaching of religion, it is thus not immunized against review under the Charter. And it is quite clear what the outcome of such a review would be. The educational authorities in the Prairies ought to follow the same constitutional instructions that apply to their counterparts in Ontario and elsewhere, and get rid of the Lord’s Prayer.