A Calgary private school unlawfully discriminated against two Muslim students by refusing to allow them to pray on campus, says the province’s human rights tribunal.
The Alberta Human Rights Commission fined Webber Academy a total of $26,000 for distress and loss of dignity after the boys were forced to hide at the school or leave the property during the city’s chilly winter to fulfill their faith’s obligations.
Neil Webber, the facility’s founder and president, said he was disappointed with the ruling released Thursday and said an appeal with Alberta’s Court of Queen’s Bench will be filed.
“A key pillar of our founding principles is that the school be a non-denominational environment in which children can thrive and focus on their academic success,” Webber said.
A human rights law expert at the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre said the ruling is a reminder to providers of public services in Alberta like schools and businesses that there is a duty to accommodate religious beliefs so long as they don’t cause undue hardship to the organization.
“It could be a Jehovah’s witness who wants Saturday off from work or a few students who want a space to pray at a school,” Sarah Burton said.
“If someone has a protected ground under human rights legislation and you can reasonably work around that request, then you’re obligated to provide it.”
The ruling focussed on the treatment of 14-year-old Sarmad Amir and Naman Siddique who were admitted to Webber Academy in late 2011.
The tribunal heard undisputed evidence that in the first few weeks they attended the school staff accommodated their request to pray by allowing them to use an empty classroom.
When the parents received a call from Webber in mid-December saying the children would now need to leave the school premises to pray, the boys began going outside on the school grounds when timings of some of the five daily devotions coincided with class hours.
If there was a blizzard outside or if it was too cold to pray, Siddique testified the pair would use a nook or cranny inside instead.
In early February, Webber wrote the parents to say that because the school’s policies were being ignored the boys would not be accepted for enrolment for the next academic year.
A few days later when Siddique violated the school’s directive by praying in the library, he testified that school vice-president Barbara Webber approached him and asked him repeatedly what he was doing such that he felt compelled to stop.
“I had this intense sense of shame and humiliation, despite the fact that I was just exercising my right as a Canadian citizen, as a human being, to practise my faith,” he said.
Neil Webber testified that he was concerned there was a plan to force the school to provide prayer space and the tribunal also heard evidence from a mother of other students that she would be “uncomfortable” if students began practising their religion while at school.
The three-member panel, headed by lawyer Sharon Lindgren-Hewlett, rejected those concerns.
“We find there was nothing requested by the students or parents that supports the finding that any sort of plan was in place to to impose prayer on Webber Academy, except insofar as the boys were asking to be able to quietly and discretely fulfill their religious beliefs on campus,” the ruling said.
“Allowing two of 900 students to pray behind closed doors for a period of five to 10 minutes is insignificant in the context of religious identity, affiliation or influence.”