CALGARY – The families of two students who won damages after a private Calgary school didn’t allow them to pray on campus grounds, and wouldn’t let them re-enroll are speaking out about “misconceptions” related to the case.
Calgary’s prestigious Webber Academy is appealing a decision by the Alberta Human Rights Commission to fine the private school $26,000 for not allowing two Muslim students to pray on campus grounds.
In 2011, the two Grade 9 and 10 students were told their praying—which requires bowing and kneeling—was “too obvious” in a non-denominational school. The teens continued to hold their prayers in secret in the school or outside, but were refused enrollment for the following school year.
The families of the two students—who now live in Vancouver where their children attend post-secondary school—issued a joint statement on Monday. They said when they first enrolled their children they “expressly asked” if they could pray for about five minutes when required, and were given permission to do so for two and a half weeks.
“The school administration later reversed their decision, which is what prompted the impasse between our families and the Webber Academy administration,” said the statement.
“We were never pointed to any specific policy prohibiting religious activity and indeed, no such putative policy was ever admitted into evidence before the tribunal. We were simply told that the school was non-denominational.”
The decision from the Human Rights Commission quotes academy president and founder Neil Webber as saying: “Since the policies and procedures of Webber Academy are being ignored by you I wish to formally inform you that your sons – Sarmad Amir and Naman Siddiqui – will not be accepted for enrollment at Webber Academy Foundation for the 2012-2013 school year.”
The statement from the families also said the human rights complaint was a “last resort” and that they attempted to resolve the matter, “going so far as to offer to pay for any expense that the school would incur in accommodating us, despite the fact that the law requires the school to accommodate religious practice to the point of undue hardship.”
“Finally, we hope to donate the damages that we were awarded to the Calgary Humane Society, as well as towards the promotion and defence of human rights in Canada.”
In a statement Thursday, Webber said his response to the tribunal’s decision to fine the school was “disappointment” and said he would be appealing the decision.
“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.”
Amira Elghawaby, a human rights coordinator from the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said there’s a difference between running a non-denominational school and discriminating individual citizens on the basis of religious beliefs.
“We’re not asking—and it wasn’t being asked—for the school to adopt any kind of religious practice themselves,” she said.
“All the school is being requested here is to make a very reasonable accommodation to allow members of their student population to practice a fundamental part of what they see as a sincerely-held religious belief.”