A school did not violate the religious rights of two elementary-aged Christian students when it allowed an Indigenous elder to perform a smudging ritual at an assembly and “cleanse” the room with smoke, a Canadian court ruled Thursday.
At issue were separate smudging and hoop dancing demonstrations that the students’ parents said became forced participation in religious ceremonies. The demonstrations took place during the 2015-16 calendar year.
In one event, a Nuu-chah-nulth elder visited a Port Alberni, British Columbia, elementary school and demonstrated the practice of smudging — the burning of plant material to “cleanse” the room of energy and to “cleanse” the participants’ spirits. A few months later, the students witnessed an Indigenous dance performance in which one of the dancers said a prayer.
The parents filed suit, claiming their religious liberties under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms were violated. The children were ages nine and seven at the time.
Justice Douglas W. Thompson, in a 47-page decision, sided with the school.
“I conclude that these smudging and hoop dancing demonstrations were in no way — either by design or in their execution — an expression of the School District’s beliefs or an expression of religious favouritism,” Thompson wrote “Rather, the organization of these events reflected a gathering momentum to incorporate the teaching of Indigenous worldviews and perspectives.
“… The smudging or anything that the Elder said could not be construed as trying to make someone else believe what the Elder believed — when the Elder spoke, she used words like ‘our tradition is’ or ‘we believe.’ And, arranging for students to observe hoop dancing, even if the dancing is accompanied by an Indigenous prayer, cannot reasonably be interpreted as the School District professing, adopting, or promoting religious beliefs.”
Approximately one-third of the students in the district are Indigenous.
The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which represented the parents, expressed disappointment in the ruling. The children, it said, were required to participate in religious or spiritual rituals “despite parental objections to the explicitly religious aspect of ‘cleansing’ the spirits of children.” Further, parents “did not have the opportunity to opt her child out of the religious ritual.”
“We are reviewing the decision with an eye to next steps,” said Jay Cameron, an attorney for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms. “This is a disappointing decision for citizens from any religion or cultural background, each of whom has a constitutional right to be free from state-compelled spirituality.”
The teacher allegedly told one the children it would be “rude” not to participate and that “all” the students were “required” to participate, the Centre said.
Michael Foust is a freelance writer. Visit his blog, MichaelFoust.com.
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