Last week, an Alberta Court upheld a ruling that found Webber Academy, a private high school, discriminated against two Muslim students by failing to provide a prayer space for them.
Webber argued that their school was non-denominational and that therefore a prayer space could not be provided. It was determined that the purpose of such a policy was to provide students with a learning environment that is "free of religious influence."
While the merits of the goal of providing a space free from religious influence is pursued by some, the students' request was not looking to frustrate that purpose. The students sought a private space that they could use to perform daily worship while on the school's campus. They were not looking to impose their beliefs on other students or even the learning environment.
Situations like that of Webber Academy beg the question about what is the nature of being non-denominational?
There are at least two ways to interpret what is non-denominational. The first is to have an institution be "free from religious influence." That is, the institution would be neutral on matters of religion and not make decisions on the basis of religion. This does not preclude the institution's stakeholders (for example students in the case of a non-denominational school) acting based on or displaying their religion affiliation within the institution.
This interpretation is essentially what the Alberta Court mandated. They did not require Webber Academy to forgo the non-demonational policy; rather the Court only required Webber to accommodate the students' religious beliefs. Webber still retains a learning environment free from religious influence.
The other way to interpret non-denominational is to say that the institution will actively not allow any act or display of religion. This was the interpretation being offered by Webber Academy.
However, Webber was not applying this interpretation consistently. The Alberta Court noted that on Webber's Admissions page, there was a student with a Sikh turban prominently shown along with a statement in their handbook that says Webber believes in "creating an atmosphere where young people of many faiths and cultures feel equally at home."
The Court went on to say "[f]or some reason, it [Webber] drew the line at Sunni prayer rituals, conducted in private, in a place that was convenient to the school and the students from time to time. Its policy thus discriminated against the belief of the complainant Sunni Muslim students as compared, for example, to students who overtly averred their religious affiliation by forms of dress and grooming."
Clearly, Webber's interpretation of non-denominational is contrary to Canadian human rights codes and the values of our pluralistic society.
However, there are some who agree with Webber's interpretation of non-denominational. Consider for example the recent ban of burkinis (full-body and hair-covering swimsuits) in Cannes, France.
There, the relevant ordinance notes that swimwear "manifesting religious affiliation in an ostentatious way, while France and its religious sites are currently the target of terrorist attacks, could create risks of trouble to public order." Furthermore, the Mayor of Cannes is on record saying that the ordinance bans beachwear that does not respect "good morals and secularism."
While this ban is ostensibly being sold as a measure of secularism (a state-defined term for non-denominational), the ordinance clearly notes the threat against France's own religious sites. So in order to protect those sites, swimwear worn almost exclusively by Muslim women had to be prohibited. The Cannes policy does not appear to be applied in a manner that is consistent with the notion of secularism.
How does one interpret "ostentatious"? Perhaps just replacing "Muslim" with the word "ostentatious" would have captured the mayor's intention more clearly. But then he wouldn't have been able to play the secularism card.
The Webber and Cannes situations illustrate the unprincipled nature of interpreting non-denominational or secularism in opposition to, instead of being neutral towards, religion. This construct is an aberrant version of secularism. It's on the rise and we should be concerned. Will the moderate secularists condemn this deviation?
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