A Calgary private school that refused to allow two Muslim students to pray on campus grounds has been fined $26,000 by the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
The tribunal found Webber Academy discriminated against the 14-year-olds and caused them distress and loss of dignity.
The two students testified they had to try to do their daily prayers in secret, sometimes outside in the snow.
The school says it is appealing the decision.
“We’re not discriminating against anybody at the school on the basis of religion,” said Neil Webber, the president and founder of Webber Academy.
“We are a non-denominational school. We’ve operated on that basis for the last 18 years.”
At the tribunal, the school argued prayer that requires bowing or kneeling is “too obvious” and may make other students uncomfortable.
It said it wants to create a learning environment that is free of religious influences.
The human rights tribunal, headed by lawyer Sharon Lindgren-Hewlett, found otherwise.
“Despite the respondent’s specifically stated goal of making people of all religious backgrounds feel welcome, its actions, objectively viewed, were not welcoming,” the three-member panel wrote in its decision.
“If you’re a private school, what you should be taking from it is that the Human Rights Act applies to you,” said Sarah Burton, a human rights lawyer at the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre in Calgary.
The two human rights complaints were filed against Webber Academy in February 2012 by Shabnam Nazar and Farhat Amir on behalf of their sons.
Nazer and Amir told the tribunal that at first their sons prayed openly on school grounds with the permission of their teachers, but it didn’t last.
After two and a half weeks of classes, Webber Academy told the boys the prayers were against the school’s non-denominational policy.
The students kept trying to conduct their daily prayers.
Boys prayed secretly
Naman Siddique testified if it was too cold to go outside, he would find a nook or cranny in the school and pray in secret. He said he found it humiliating.
Siddique told the tribunal the school’s vice-president of administration, Barbara Webber, once interrupted his prayers in the school library to ask him repeatedly what he was doing.
He said the experience left a “deep fear” in his heart and he still feels the need to look over his shoulder when he’s praying in public spaces.
“I think we should watch this case,” said lawyer Sarah Burton.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if it got to the Supreme Court of Canada or at least to the Alberta Court of Appeal to have some of these issues hashed out.”