B.C. parent takes school district to court after children coerced to participate in Aboriginal ‘cleansing ritual’ and prayer
The Justice Centre has filed a petition with the B.C. Supreme Court in Nanaimo to protect parental and conscience rights, as well as the Charter right that the state remain neutral in matters of religion. The petitioner is a B.C. mom whose children were coerced by their school into taking part in a religious ‘cleansing ritual’.
In September of 2015, Candice Servatius received a letter from the principal of John Howitt Elementary School (JHES) in Port Alberni, BC, where her two children attend. The letter informed parents that JHES would be hosting a “Traditional Nuu-chah-nulth Classroom/Student Cleansing” performed by a “Nuu-chah-nulth Member” in the school’s classrooms. The letter did not provide a date for when these cleansing rituals would take place.
The letter described specific beliefs of the Nuu-chah-nulth: “everything is one, all is connected” and “everything has a spirit.” The letter described in detail how the cleansing ritual would “cleanse” the classroom of “energy” and cleanse the students’ “spirits.” The letter claimed that without cleansing, the classroom and even the furniture would harbour negative “energy” and would not be safe until the “energy” was “released.” The letter stated that each student would participate in the cleansing ritual by holding onto a cedar branch while having “smoke from Sage fanned over [their] body and spirit.” Concerned about the explicitly religious nature of the cleansing ritual, Mrs. Servatius went to the school the day after receiving the letter, to learn more, but was shocked to find out that this “cleansing ritual” had already been imposed on her children.
Her daughter explained that she had been coerced by the teacher to participate in the cleansing ritual. When Mrs. Servatius’ daughter expressed to her teacher that she did not want to participate, the teacher told Mrs. Servatius’ daughter that it would be “rude” not to participate in the religious ritual and that “all” the students were “required” to participate.
In January of 2016, Mrs. Servatius learned from her children that a prayer based on Aboriginal spirituality had been performed at a JHES student assembly, with explicit references to an unspecified “god”. JHES did not notify parents.
School District 70 denies that these religious ceremonies and prayers are violating the religious freedom of Mrs. Servatius and her children, and claims that these are merely “cultural” activities. School District 70 further claims that “there is more tolerance for Aboriginal religion” than other religions.
Mrs. Servatius seeks a declaration that the actions of School District 70 in forcing her children to participate in a religious ritual and be subject to religious prayer have violated her and her children’s religious freedom as protected by section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mrs. Servatius also seeks a court order to prevent School District 70 from engaging in similar actions in the future.
“This case is profoundly important. This is by no means the only instance of government authorities brazenly challenging the constitutional rights of parents and the rule of law,” stated Justice Centre president John Carpay. “Prayer and religious ceremonies have been illegal in public schools in Canada for over 25 years. But it appears School District 70 is more preoccupied with political correctness than the law,” added Carpay.