And No Religion Too: A Study of Religious Clubs in Public Schools

Class: Canadian and International Law (CLN4U1)
Date: November 13, 2007
The Assignment: Choose from a list of debate topics and write a position paper.
Mark: 96%

One major topic of discussion in the 2007 Ontario provincial elections was that of government funding for faith-based schools; this debate can be further broken down into the basic issue of whether religion has any place in the public education system at all. On one hand, some Canadians believe that the education system should be completely secular, while others believe that eliminating religion in schools is a violation of their freedom of religion guaranteed in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While there will never be a true consensus on this broad issue, it is often necessary for governments and school boards to create rules and regulations on the more specific aspects of the topic. One particular issue is that of religious clubs in public schools and whether or not they should be permitted. A Christian club at Westmount Secondary School created controversy in 2004 and much progress concerning the issue was made due to this case. While there may be both positive and negative effects resulting from the approval of these groups, with proper restrictions placed on them, student-run religious clubs, such as the one at Westmount, should be allowed to operate in the public school system.

Cases such as Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board of Education (1988) — in which it was ruled that reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of each school day was found to be a violation of the students’ freedom of religion — have helped to pave the way towards a secular educational system. This is certainly an honourable goal in today’s multi-cultural and multi-faith Canada, but has society’s attempt to achieve political correctness gone too far? It is the belief of Blake Davidson, a Christian pastor from Hamilton that “[r]eligious freedom has taken a back seat to almost every other kind of freedom.” (Gosgnach p.2) The Charter gives no freedom supremacy over all others, so in a fair and just society, this should not be the case. Recently, it is appearing more and more that freedom of religion is being “guaranteed” by simply removing the slightest hint of religion from all aspects of life rather than dealing with the actual issue. While removing religion and making the school system secular prevents the promotion of any one religion — which would be considered discrimination against all other religions — it does not allow students the freedom to express their chosen religious beliefs. Avoiding the topic is certainly no help to another pressing issue concerning religion: tolerance. The existence of religious clubs in schools could be the solution to this problem. In the current public school system, there is little opportunity for students to learn about religion. As well, in most homes, religious beliefs held by groups other than the religious group chosen by the household are rarely discussed. A religious club in a school setting — where people from all faiths, cultures, and backgrounds meet — could provide a forum for these topics to be examined when they would normally be ignored. This exposure to multiple religious beliefs will also help to foster a sense of understanding and tolerance amongst individuals who otherwise would not have the opportunity to see things from another religion’s perspective. While, again, it is impossible for everyone to see eye-to-eye because people are often too set in their own beliefs to listen to others’ opinions, by instilling this tolerance while people are young, it may prove to have a positive effect in the future. Bernard Shapiro, head of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education and Ontario’s deputy minister of Education in the eighties, states:

[Y]ou don’t get to be tolerant just because you happen to go to school with members of another race…. you have to be much, much more pro-active about it. If you want people to be tolerant, they have to not only see tolerance, but they have to understand it, they have to talk about it, they have to be pro-active.

(Sweet p.237)

While students in the public school system are probably exposed to the beliefs and views of other religions more often than those in the Catholic school system, Shapiro is correct in saying that this is simply not enough. Giving students the chance to join in or observe the activities of religious clubs in an educational setting is a step in the right direction towards being more pro-active. Going even further, if these clubs interact with each other and discuss and debate their views, this will further promote tolerance and understanding of these diverse groups. As with any kind of extra-curricular school group, religious clubs promote a sense of community and belonging. Where students may have previously been ridiculed or excluded because of their beliefs, forming a group with other like-minded students allows them to see that they are not alone. Another reason that allowing religious groups is beneficial to schools is the fact that refusal of these groups could be labelled a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Whereas Zylberberg concerned “the requirement of a religious exercise [that] was a violation of section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms” (Dickinson p.368), in the case of religious clubs, the issue is not that students are being compelled to participate in a religious exercises, but that the students’ freedom to choose to participate in these activities is being denied. In January 2004, parents of the students involved with the Westmount club threatened to sue the school because they believed that the ban on the club was a violation of both the Education Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. (Gosgnach p.1) There was no further action by the parents beyond this, however, so it is uncertain how the courts would have ruled on the matter. Whether or not prohibiting religious clubs is truly a violation of the Charter remains yet to be seen.

In the argument against religious clubs, some people believe that these groups can negatively affect the school environment. A number of parents are “very concerned their children will be exposed to cult groups or indoctrinated in a way they want absolutely nothing to do with.” (Korstanje p.A19) In the case of the Westmount club — and as it should be in all faith-based clubs — membership is purely voluntary. No one is being forced to join a religious club at school; the option is merely there for those who want to participate. There are also restrictions placed on these groups, which will be discussed further, that help to prevent situations such as these from happening. If any group does overstep its boundaries, the principal should be quick to disband the offending club. Proponents of the clubs are quick to emphasize that “[t]here should be zero concern about exposing students who, of their own free will and curiosity, want to hear what our community’s faith leaders might have to bring to a discussion of moral, ethical, or social issues.” (Korstanje p.A19) The clubs should be open to all new members, whether they are a member of the religion discussed by the group or not. The goal of the clubs is not to convert students to that particular religion but instead to inform those who want to be informed. Another concern is that students who join the clubs, or possibly those who do not, will be the subject of ridicule. At one point in the Westmount dispute, the members of the club were forced to leave school property if they wished to continue conducting their meetings, “where they [were] subjected to jeers from fellow students and passing motorists.” (Postma p.1) While there can be no guarantee that students who join these groups will not be ridiculed, the same can students who join other more traditional clubs. The fact also remains that the students in the group continued to meet despite the ridicule. Their time outdoors could even be stated as a course in character building: “‘[t]hey’re no longer just students,’ says Bonam [the pastor that met with the group], ‘and they’re no longer quiet Christians. They’re little revolutionaries’.” (Postma p.2) Additionally, the ridicule faced by the group occurred when they were unable to meet on school property; there is no evidence of the group being ridiculed after their return to the school. Finally, the fear that students might feel left out because there is no group for their own religion is unfounded; students should be allowed to create new religious clubs if they so choose, provided it follows the guidelines set out by the school board.

In response to the Westmount situation, the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board created a policy specifically regarding religious clubs in their public schools, which stated:

Faith-based or religious clubs will be permitted during the school day under the following conditions:

  • They must not be indoctrinational
  • They must not give primacy to any particular religious faith
  • They must be open and accessible to all on an equal basis
  • They must be monitored by a teacher advisor

(Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board p.1)

The first condition was put into place to calm fears similar to the ones demonstrated in the Korstanje article. This allows the groups to educate and inform students about a particular religion’s beliefs, but prevents them from converting students to a particular religion. The difference between indoctrination and education had been previously clarified in the Policy/Program Memorandum No. 112:

  • The school may sponsor the study of religion, but may not sponsor the practice of religion.
  • The school may expose students to all religious views, but may not impose any particular view.
  • The school’s approach to religion is one of instruction, not one of indoctrination.
  • The function of the school is to educate about all religions, not to convert to any one religion.
  • The school’s approach is academic, not devotional.
  • The school should study what all people believe, but should not teach a student what to believe.
  • The school should strive for student awareness of all religions, but should not press for student acceptance of any one religion.
  • The school should seek to inform the student about various beliefs, but should not seek to conform him or her to any one belief.

(Deputy Minister of Education p.1)

In summary, the difference between indoctrination and education, as defined here, is that indoctrination involves a more active role whereas education is more passive. The second condition means that while the groups are permitted to teach about only one religion, they are not allowed to state that this religion is better than any others are, or make claims that their religion is the only “true” religion, as such a controversial statement about this sensitive topic would most likely create conflict. The third condition allows any student to join a religious club, even if they do not subscribe to that particular religion, to prevent discrimination issues. Finally, the condition that a teacher advisor must monitor the club is another measure to prevent conflict. The Westmount club initially did not have a teacher advisor at their meetings; they would instead meet with Mark Bonam, a local pastor who was otherwise not involved with the school. The policy implemented by the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is a good one that covers most issues that might arise. Another thing that must be taken into consideration, however, is determining what would constitute a religious group. How accepting would the school board be of non-traditional religious groups, such as an Atheism or a Wicca club? The current policy has no rules addressing this, so technically both groups should be accepted, or it would be considered discrimination. At one point, a rule was created that stated that each club must represent a minimum of three faiths, but this plan was rejected by the group, stating that it was still a restriction of their rights and freedoms. Shortly thereafter, the plan was changed to allow each group to represent only one religion, “as long as it joined other school faith clubs in four, quarterly inter-faith dialogues.” (Gosgnach p.2) This is a very important condition in order to ensure that these groups benefit the students; without interaction with the other groups, the major benefit from having the clubs, teaching tolerance, is eliminated. This rule is one that must be enforced strictly, since it is the major condition that allowed the club to continue at Westmount.

In conclusion, the agreement reached at Westmount Secondary School and the policy created by the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board should prove to be beneficial for the school’s environment and the student’s attitudes towards those who are different. Keeping public schools secular does not necessarily mean that all traces of religion need to be immediately removed, as seems to be the current case. Students should not be forced to participate in religious activities, such as reciting the Lord’s Prayer, but the option of religious clubs should be available for those who want to join them.

Works Cited

Deputy Minister of Education. (1990, December 6). Policy/program memorandum no. 112: Education about religion in the public elementary and secondary schools. Ontario: Government of Ontario.

Dickinson, G., & Dolmage, W. (1996). Education, religion, and the courts in Ontario. Canadian Journal of Education, 21 (4), 363–383.

Gosgnach, T. (2004, May). Hamilton school bans noon-hour Christian club. Retrieved November 9, 2007 on the World Wide Web: <>

Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board. (2003, November 20). Religion in Hamilton-Wentworth district school board secondary and elementary schools. Retrieved November 9, 2007 on the World Wide Web: <>

Korstanje, C. (2003, November 24). A strong whiff of parental prejudice. The Hamilton Spectator, pp. A19.

Postma, D. (2004, May 11). School shuts down Christian group. ChristianWeek, 18 (4). Retrieved November 9, 2007 on the World Wide Web: <>

Sweet, L. (1997). God in the classroom: The controversial issue of religion in Canada’s schools. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.