Why Did This Canadian Public School Recite the Lord’s Prayer Every Morning?

One thing we’ve all learned from the Jessica Ahlquist case is that many public schools have religious symbols in the buildings — and they justify their placement by saying it’s “tradition.” It’s always been there, so it should always be there.

Tradition is overrated, though, and in these cases, it doesn’t make it right. You need people like Jessica pointing out that the religious banner should never have been allowed in the first place, no matter how sentimental it may be for other people.

It’s a similar situation for Luke Fevin, an atheist and a father in Alberta, Canada. He enrolled his children into Sturgeon Heights school, a public school that he believed was free of religious influence.

He quickly found out that wasn’t the case:

At Sturgeon Heights, they began every morning with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer over the intercom. Even if non-Christian families wanted to opt out, they couldn’t, since the prayer was piped throughout the school. For Fevin, that wasn’t acceptable. He’d enrolled his kids at Sturgeon Heights on the understanding it was a secular school. No one, he says, had told him about the prayer policy. So last year, he began an effort to get it changed, not just for his kids, but for every family that might not feel brave enough to oppose long-established tradition.

Why do they do the daily prayer? Tradition, of course:

Principal Garnet Goertzen [says:]

“The Lord’s Prayer is part of opening exercises. It’s been a part of this community’s tradition since the school was new. This community is predominantly a Christian community, and it has been since the school opened.

Yes. In the multicultural Canada of 2011, a public, non-Catholic, supposedly secular school board, fully funded by Alberta taxpayers, has long been explicitly encouraging Christian prayer.

The article in the Edmonton Journal points out that the school division isn’t actually breaking the law (on something of a technicality). But there’s still no reason to continue the tradition.

In fact, there’s an upside to this whole story: Fevin’s complaint has resulted in a partial victory!

As of this September, at least, principal Goertzen has suspended morning prayer at Sturgeon Heights. The Sturgeon school division is now reviewing its own religious promotion policy. And the community is striving to find some kind of compromise, like a moment of silence, or an ecumenical “affirmation” of values, that maintains a tradition of moral reflection without imposing a specific faith. It won’t be easy to find a solution that pleases everyone. Luke Fevin says his family has already felt immense social pressure, either to leave the school, or surrender the argument. He says he’s not just speaking for his family — but for all who oppose mandatory prayer, yet are too intimidated to say so.

I don’t know if there’s any way to show support for him, but if there’s a fan club, I’m joining. We need more people like Luke, courageous enough to speak out against religious tradition in places where it doesn’t belong.

(Thanks to Ron for the link!)

***Update***: Luke Fevin tells his own version of the story at the Edmonton Atheists’ website.

Of course, one interesting question in all this is why out a school with approx 375 children, have only two families said anything? Is this because only two families feel this way? Of course not – the elephant in the room is that anyone who dares dissent against the religious status quo will pay a price (as my family are doing). I know of parents that agree with us but just don’t want to get involved and even parents who agree, but because they own local businesses know that speaking up could well be financial suicide. Bullying discrimination by religion. It is real, but no-one wants to touch it — it is more toxic than racial discrimination.

So far, the net result of religion in my children’s school has been to set parent against parent, child against child and even teacher against teacher — but to point this out would be considered inflammatory and disrespectful.

(Thanks to Dorothy for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Entertaining Doubts

    “Tradition of moral reflection”? What the hell does the Lord’s Prayer have to do with promoting morals, especially of a humanistically useful sort? It’s all about groveling in front of the sky daddy, hoping he’ll give you the stuff you want, and surrendering your personal responsibility for your choices and actions. Nothing in there that would teach kids to reflect on their own moral development.

    You’re right, Hemant, it’s all about conflating “religion” with ethics, no matter how absurd the actual beliefs and practices are. Traditions are made to be challenged, and sacred cows are made to be roasted and eaten (metaphorically, if you’re vegan). Kudos to Luke and his family for their fortitude in this fight!

    (P.S. – Am I the only one who thinks Luke looks a bit like Nathan Fillion in that picture? It’s like he’s about to go all Captain Hammer on their ass.)

    • Anonymous

      Yeah, I briefly thought about Nathan Fillion too. With a somewhat fuller face I guess

    • Erik

      Stand back everyone, nothing here to see
      Just unconstitutional proselytizing, in the middle of it me
      Yes captain skeptic’s here, and a lawsuit’s what we need
      The day needs my secular expertise!

  • Anonymous

    And of course the Christians who want the prayer shunned, insulted and bullied the two families who stepped forward. So much that other families are afraid to say anything.

    I just don’t get why this is so important to them. They can pray at home and in the churches whenever they like. Plenty of time to indoctrinate their brood. But there is no need to do it in school as well

  • http://denkeensechtna.blogspot.com Deen

    And the community is striving to find some kind of compromise, like a
    moment of silence, or an ecumenical “affirmation” of values, that
    maintains a tradition of moral reflection without imposing a specific
    faith.

    Why bother? That’s time better spent teaching. Besides, “ecumenical” is still religious.

  • Rich Samuels

    Interesting – I normally visit this website with adblock on but a recent install has seen that removed. Why do we have three adverts for liberty university “the worlds largest Christian university”? 

    Hemant are you not able to choose the adverts on the site since moving over to patheos?

    This story reminds me that I need to have a word with someone at my son’s school. I’m UK based so sadly have to endure some level of religious bullshit in the school. The schools claims it’s non-denominational but I spied the school prayer the other day for the first time and it specifically states “God” which clearly alienates the non-Abrahamic religions…and obviously also those who believe in none.

  • Anonymous

    Small point of dissent:

    It is real, but no-one wants to touch it — it is more toxic than racial discrimination.

    Errr sorry, but no. Certainly religious bigotry has the potential to be at least as toxic as racial bigotry (witness many Muslim countries as relates to apostates), but in general the suffering visited on the nonreligious in countries like the US and Canada simply cannot compare to the systematic oppression of a whole population, with the full collaboration of government, that has been the history of racial discrimination. Certainly the bigotry is just as wrong and morally bankrupt, but saying that it is “more toxic” than racial discrimination is just a hair shy of invoking a Godwin moment.
    If there’s any Canadian reading this I’d love if they could answer a question: Is it just me or does this sort of shit happen more in some areas of Canada than others? I have this vague feeling that there are vast cultural differences between many provinces. Can anyone confirm if this is the case? I have to assume the rural to city divide has an influence, but does the French and English divide also mean anything in terms of religious attitudes?

    • Lindsay Smith

      It seems to me that the Christian cases are very often in Alberta and the Muslim ones in Toronto, Ontario.

      I live just north of Toronto.

    • http://www.edmontonatheists.ca Marion

      Alberta as a whole is probably less multi-cultural and more uniformly Christian (of some variety) than Ontario. Which isn’t to say it all is; the cities are more ethnically diverse than the rural areas, in my experience. 
      We joke that Alberta is Canada’s Texas, but the joke sticks around because it has that uncomfortable kernel of truth.

    • Nogodscanuck

      West of Vancouver B.C. Canada in the Fraser valley there is a strong Christian (mennonite) presents. 

  • Icaarus

    As an Albertan, As a Canadian, I am proud of this father, and embarrassed for my government. 

  • Alexis

    Every tradition has a first time that it was performed. It was not traditional then.

  • http://twitter.com/mrcranky mrcranky

    I live near this school. It used to be considered “that weird school on the edge of town with the religious whack-jobs” until the city grew to absorb it. I see it still has the religious whack-jobs involved in its operation.

    St. Albert residents have a choice between this school, or one of the schools in the public Catholic School Board, or one of the schools in the Protestant School Board. I know, not much of a choice, right?

    My kids go to schools in the protestant system, which is the defacto secular school system in St. Albert. There is essentially no religious indoctrination in the schools, except for a bit of fairly non-religious christmas holiday cheer. I expect that for Mr. Fevin, one of the St. Albert protestant schools would be a better choice.

    As for the community, the nuts tend to band together, and St. Albert is predominantly white christians. There are definitely people around who would take my atheism as a personal affront. As long as they stay out of politics I don’t care.

    In the story Mr. Fevin expresses concern about his kids becoming believers because of the school. I don’t think that should be a worry, because parents have more influence over their kids (especially when young) than anyone else. In our house, when my kids ask about a god, I tell them the truth about what some people believe, compare it to other different beliefs, and tell them that even though lots of people believe something that’s wrong, it’s still wrong. In our house, gods fall into the same category as Santa, the tooth fairy, the easter bunny, and believing the world is flat. They are quaint beliefs arising during humanity’s immaturity. We don’t have a problem with other people’s odd beliefs, as long as those beliefs don’t interfere with the rational operation of our community and society.

  • http://fred5.myopenid.com/ fred5

    And does Mr. Fevin feel the same way about things like this?

    This was a display at this years easter celebration.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    It’s been a part of this community’s tradition since the school was new. This community is predominantly a Christian community, and it has been since the school opened.”

    There they are in a nutshell. The two favorite fallacious arguments of Christians wanting to continue to force their beliefs down others’ throats, Appeal to Tradition, and Argumentum ad Populum. “We’ve done this unethical thing for many years, so it’s okay,” and “The majority of people ’round here like doing this unethical thing, so it’s okay.” 

    No it isn’t okay. It’s coercion, it’s bullying. This is the myopic and self-centered view of anyone who has been coddled in a position of unchallenged privilege for generations.  The tyranny of the majority is at an end.

  • Anonymous

    This isn’t about a school that needs to change its policy, it’s about a province that needs to change its law.

    The constitutional compromise that spawned all the religious confusion in Canadian schools might have made sense in 1867, but it needs to be revisited.


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