Forcing children to participate in spiritual ritual at the centre of BC court hearing

NANAIMO:  This week, the Supreme Court of BC will hear the case of a mother who objected to her children being forced to participate in two supernatural rituals at their Port Alberni public school.

In 2015, the school required children to participate in a ceremony whereby smoke from burning sage was fanned over the classroom’s children for purposes of cleansing their spirits of negative energy. Later in the school year, a prayer was offered at a mandatory student assembly.

The Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms ( represents Candice Servatius in her action against School District 70 (Port Alberni). The case deals with the right of citizens to be free from government-compelled religion and creeds, and the state’s duty of neutrality. The case is scheduled to be heard from Monday, November 18 through Friday November 22, 2019 at the B.C. Supreme Court, 35 Front Street, in Nanaimo, BC. The hearing will commence at 10 AM each day and conclude at 4 PM, and is open to the public.

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 term Nuu-chah-nulth is used to describe fifteen related First Nation tribes who live on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island.

The letter from the school described specific beliefs of the Nuu-chah-nulth: “everything is one, all is connected” and “everything has a spirit.” The school’s letter described in detail how the cleansing ritual would “cleanse” the classroom of “energy” and cleanse the “spirits” of the students. 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 supernatural and religious nature of the cleansing ritual, and how it conflicted with her own family’s religious beliefs, Mrs. Servatius immediately went to the school to learn more. When she arrived, she was shocked to find out that the ritual had already been imposed on her nine-year old daughter. Mrs. Servatius had received less than 24 hours of notice from the school, and did not have the opportunity to opt her child out of the religious ritual.

Mrs. Servatius’ daughter recounted her experience in the classroom to her mother and has sworn an Affidavit, filed with the Court. The daughter’s Affidavit illustrates the difference between learning about First Nations’ people and culture, which she testified she enjoys, and being compelled against her will to participate in a supernatural ritual contrary to her own deeply held convictions. When she expressed to her teacher that she did not want to participate, the teacher told the girl that it would be “rude” not to participate in the ritual and that “all” the students were “required” to participate.

In January of 2016, Mrs. Servatius learned that a prayer based on First Nations 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 the ceremonies and prayers that children are required to participate in violate the right of Mrs. Servatius and her children to be free of government-imposed religion, and claims that such rituals are merely “cultural”.

Witnesses for the Attorney General of B.C. and the Nuu-chul-nuth Tribal Council, both of whom are intervening in the case, testified during cross examinations that it is not consistent with First Nation’s practice to compel anyone to be smudged against their will, and that it is “unnecessary” to hold cleansing ceremonies in classrooms in order to teach about First Nations culture.

Section 76 of the B.C. School Act requires public schools to be conducted on “strictly secular and non-sectarian principles”.

The Justice Centre filed a petition on behalf of Mrs. Servatius in 2016. Affidavits from Mrs. Servatius and her daughter were also filed, as well as an expert witness on behalf of Mrs. Servatius. Full background information and case documents are available on the Justice Centre website.

“A neutral state represents a diverse public, and should not be hosting religious rituals, or ceremonies that appeal to the supernatural, in public schools,” noted John Carpay, President of the Justice Centre, which acts as counsel for Mrs. Servatius.

“Teaching children about different religions and spiritualities is good. However, requiring children to participate in a religious ritual or spiritual ceremony in public schools violates the Charter,” continued Carpay.