Almost anything to do with religion in the public sphere has now become controversial in Canada in the 21st century, everything from Christian religious references in our national anthem, to the very bedrock of our moral beliefs translated into our laws, constitution, and charter.
No matter where one stands on the religious spectrum — atheist or agnostic versus the pious and the faithful — the issue has been polarizing to varying swaths of the Canadian population, both for and against.
In Taber, the issue of the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at a local elementary school — a public school in Horizon School Division — caused a furor in the community when it first arose more than a year ago, and was ultimately removed at that time.
In a move that in retrospect might have been ill-advised, the Lord’s Prayer is now back at Dr. Hamman School, and for better or for worse the issue — which seems to have more lives than a cat — has now been put back in the public sphere to be re-hashed endlessly for its pros and cons.
Many arguments have centered on the concept of majority rule — if the majority wants something, then that should be the last word on the matter. While the will of a majority should never be ignored — and it would seem the “majority”, collectively represented by the Dr. Hamman School parent council and the Horizon School Division board of trustees — is in support of the decision to bring the prayer back, blanket adherence to the principle of majority rule without a rational assessment of what is being advocated is a problematic concept to say the least.
If the will of the majority should always be law, what if the majority was advocating a return to slavery, or the institution of concentration camps for aboriginals? What about the execution of homosexuals? Or the internment of Islamic Canadians? Or the removal of the vote for women?
Just because the majority advocates something, doesn’t always make it right in a strictly moral sense. While we have laws in place to prevent many abuses by governments, by those in positions of power, laws are often the only protection minorities are offered when confronted with a hostile majority bent on their persecution.
And if you’re thinking of dismissing the above as extreme examples, think again. Tell that to the Jews of Nazi Germany. Tell it to Martin Luther and the Protestants in the 16th century, tell it to the dissidents under Soviet rule, or intellectuals under the Pol Pot regime in 1970’s Cambodia. History is rife with as many examples of majorities persecuting minorities as it is with powerful minorities dictating to majorities.
Taber is not the only community in Canada that has been struggling with what amounts to the old idea of the separation of church and state. A recent Supreme Court decision regarding public prayer and religious symbology in a municipal council chambers in Saguenay, Que. soundly supported the idea of there being a place for religion, and places it shouldn’t be:
“The prayer recited by the municipal council in breach of the state’s duty of neutrality resulted in a distinction, exclusion, and preference based on religion,” reads the judgment. “In combination with the circumstances in which the prayer was recited, (it) turned the meetings into a preferential space for people with theistic beliefs.”
There you have it — the state’s “duty of neutrality.” And more and more Canadians appear to strongly support that idea. In a poll of 1,504 citizens conducted by Angus Reid and released earlier this week, three quarters of those surveyed agreed with removing religious prayer from public meetings.
Some 56 per cent were in favour of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the case, 25 per cent were strongly in favour, while 44 per cent were opposed, with only 18 per cent strongly against.
Those who oppose religious symbology or prayer in a public school are not necessarily anti-religion, although they often seem to be portrayed that way by those who oppose their viewpoints. Almost all have no issue with the right of people to worship as they see fit within the bounds of their private lives, but object to others — of another faith or perhaps none at all — being exposed to ideas they might fundamentally oppose, or for being excluded from full participation because they object to the majority’s ruling.
It should be noted that in Taber — even within Horizon School Division — there are schools for those who wish to see religion as a fundamental aspect of their children’s daily education, such as Taber Christian School.
For Catholics, there are St. Patrick’s Elementary School and St. Mary’s School. In short, there are other options available for those seeking a religious parametre to education in the community. Which tends to beg the question: is it necessary in our other public schools as well?
Or we could just continue to adhere to a frontier version of the majority principle: if you are outnumbered, the majority always rules.