A situation in Hamilton has seen dozens of students meeting outside their public high school once a week in bitter cold over the winter because they formed a Christian-oriented discussion group. They continue to do so and have drawn nation-wide media attention as a result.
The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board and Westmount Secondary School kicked the students out of the school last November over their noon-hour meetings. The board claimed the meetings were in violation of the Ontario Education Act, which it believed prohibits religious activities during the school day, including at lunch time. Despite this, the school’s Muslim students were permitted to continue meeting with an imam for Friday afternoon prayers.
Subsequent months have seen a number of developments in the controversy. The Hamilton Spectator has covered the situation extensively and, editorially, has come down on the side of the students. The Vision TV program 360 Vision, meanwhile, aired a documentary on the matter.
Following an appeal for clarification, provincial Education Minister Gerard Kennedy basically steered clear of the controversy, saying he is leaving it up to the local board to determine its interpretation of the Education Act. The board then met through December, January and February with Hamilton faith leaders to explain its position. During that time, students at Parkside High School in Dundas indicated they wanted a designated Christian prayer room on campus.
In late January, parents of students belonging to the banned Westmount club threatened to sue the high school for what they felt were violations of the Education Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In mid-February, the school board decided that faith-based or religious clubs would be permitted to meet at its schools during the school day, under certain conditions. These included provisions that the clubs not indoctrinate or give primacy to any particular faith, be open and accessible to all on an equal basis and be monitored by a teacher-adviser. At the same time, the go-ahead was given for a pilot prayer group project at Parkside.
By March, that had changed to a plan for multi-faith social clubs that would require a minimum of three separate faith perspectives be presented to students. These clubs would be monitored through an inter-faith advisory committee. However, that didn’t go over well with Christian faith leaders, who charged that such an arrangement continued to limit Christian students’ constitutional rights to freely associate, express their ideas and beliefs and practise their own religion.
The Christian opposition prompted the school board to revisit the issue, resulting in yet another plan wherein a faith club could be dominated by one perspective, as long as it joined other school faith clubs in four, quarterly inter-faith dialogues.
“We think this can work,” Blake Davidson, a Christian pastor in Hamilton and parent of two children in public high school, told The Interim. “All we have to say is, ‘It’s my belief, it’s my perspective, it’s my opinion, based on the Bible.’ So, you’re not preaching. We never conducted clubs that way, anyway. There are all kinds of perspectives within Christianity.”
Davidson added that the latest plan “is not perfect and is not what we had,” but Christian faith leaders don’t believe it would be worth four years of court challenges to attempt a shot at something better. “They might ban everyone, anyway. We have to look at what gives the most amount of freedom in return for the least amount of restriction. We’ve pretty much found it.”
He said the proposed new clubs must carry names such as “Christian perspective club,” so as to give the idea that they’re just about points of view and not indoctrination. “I don’t think in practice, it’ll make much difference. It’s pretty much what we were doing before.”
The plan faces three hurdles before it becomes official policy: it must pass the opinion of the school board’s legal counsel; senior school board management must be sold on the idea; and trustees have to sign on.
“The big hangup is the lawyer,” said Davidson. “If the legal opinion fails, we will not accept the other models they have put forward. That means we’ll have to either challenge it in the courts or at the provincial government level.”
Such a scenario would likely take four years to play out, before it would culminate in an Ontario Supreme Court hearing. It would be a rather risky route to pursue, because Christian plaintiffs would be liable for the court costs of even their opponents if a court challenge proved unsuccessful.
“Our hope has always been that saner heads will prevail and we’ll come up with something we can all work with,” said Davidson. “We don’t want to make the public schools Christian. We just want a place for Christians in public schools.”
He paid tribute to the young people who braved the harsh elements throughout the past winter to drive home the point that they were entitled to a Christian club indoors. “This has been handled poorly from the beginning. This could have been decided without kicking the kids out … They didn’t choose to exercise any humanity.”