June 1, 2018 6:17 pm
Updated: June 1, 2018 8:47 pm

Court orders new human rights hearing in dispute over prayer in Calgary school

Webber Academy file photo.

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A complaint made by two Muslim students who were not allowed to pray at a non-denominational private school in Calgary is headed back to the Alberta Human Rights Commission.

The Court of Appeal of Alberta says the original decision five years ago by a commission tribunal included a number of errors.

A human rights tribunal found the school could have accommodated the students’ prayers without violating its aim of being non-denominational.

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“The tribunal began its decision by determining the issue was not a request for ‘prayer space,’” reads the 15-page appeal court decision released Friday.

“Clearly, the students required space to pray and Webber Academy was being asked to provide space, whether dedicated or not.”

The court also says a new hearing is needed because the school — Webber Academy — has raised issues under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that were not raised initially.

In its 2015 decision, the tribunal ordered Webber Academy to pay a $26,000 fine. The decision was upheld by the Court of Queen’s Bench. The school then took the matter to the Court of Appeal.

On Friday, the school’s founder and president, Neil Webber, said he was pleased with the result.

“Yes, we’re delighted with the outcome of the successful appeal,” Webber told Rob Breakenridge on Global News Radio 770 CHQR.

Listen below: Neil Webber joins Rob Breakenridge to discuss his school’s successful appeal on ‘prayer space’ at Webber Academy

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“The fact that we can be a secular school; it embraces a welcome, secular school environment of our diverse religious, agnostic and atheistic beliefs that are here, so we’re thrilled.”

The two boys, who were in grades 9 and 10 in 2011, testified the school told them their praying was too obvious and went against the non-denominational nature of the academy.

Webber said all students and parents are told from the outset there is no space in the school for praying.

“Webber Academy is an educational institution. We cater to students, as I’ve said, from different backgrounds, and it’s a university preparatory school,” Webber told 770 CHQR. “We’ve always felt that religious practices were the responsibility of families, and that any practices can take place outside of the school environment.”

Watch below: Students speak out over human rights decision

“We understood that we were being asked to provide prayer space at the school,” Webber said.

READ MORE: Families clarify ‘misconceptions’ in Webber Academy Muslim prayer decision

Webber recounted the school’s response to the Muslim family that requested a place for prayer at Webber Academy, and pointed out other options available to the family.

“We’ve told the family that made the ask for prayer space previously that they can go off-campus and pray, or go to a mosque nearby, but we weren’t wanting to have that occur on our site. And if this family feels strongly about the practice of the religion, there are religious-based schools in the city, whether they be Muslim schools, or Christian schools, or Jewish schools. We wanted to have a private school that was secular — welcoming the kids whether they come from religious families or non-religious families.”

Webber said that there have been few requests for separate spaces dedicated to religious practices.

“In fact, over the 21 years now that the school has been in operation, we’ve only had two requests for prayer space: one from a Catholic family many years ago — and we said, ‘No, we won’t provide cathecism space at our school’ — and then the second one was of course the Muslim families in 2011.”

READ MORE: Webber Academy appeals $26K fine after denying Muslim student prayers

Webber noted that the Muslim population at his school has been increasing.

“It’s interesting to me that over the last five [to] six years, the number of Muslim parents and students at our school has actually increased. They are happy to be here with our school’s policy of not having prayer space.”

The new hearing is yet to be scheduled.

–With files from The Canadian Press

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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