EMSB Chair calls into question Education Minister’s directive to ban prayers in public schools
English Montreal School Board Chair Joe Ortona has written to Quebec Minister of Education Bernard Drainville to express concerns over his directive banning prayers in public schools.
The directive requires school service centres to ensure that in each of their schools and centres, no place is used, in fact or appearance, for the purpose of religious practice.
Mr. Ortona points out that the EMSB is not a school service centre. On August 10, 2020, the Quebec English School Boards Association obtained an unconditional stay of Bill 40 in the English sector. This Act, which gave rise to school service centres, would have transformed the governance system of English-language school boards and removed many of their powers. In a unanimous decision on September 17, 2020, the Quebec Court of Appeal upheld the stay of Bill 40. Therefore, the Directive does not currently apply to the English Montreal School Board.
“Moreover, any application of the Directive to English public schools in Quebec would infringe not only on our students' and teachers' freedom of religion but also on section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” he said. “There is a long-standing culture rooted in the province's English schools that values and celebrates religious diversity. Public schools are secular: they cannot, under any circumstances, promote or prevent a particular belief system, and in no case may a teacher attempt to transmit religious beliefs. At the same time, this institutional secularism means respect for and the acceptance of religious diversity among individuals – teachers, students, and school principals – who are not required to leave their religious beliefs in the lockers (just as they are not expected to leave other aspects of their identities there).
“When a principal of one of our schools allows a student to use their office during recess to say a prayer, for example, they are not endorsing a religion. They do so because they have determined that this simple accommodation harms no one and because of a deep-rooted culture of respect for religious diversity. Let's be very clear: the Directive would prevent such accommodations. Like Bill 21, the Directive conflicts with the culture of open secularism in English schools. Like Bill 21, the Directive contravenes English-language school boards' right to manage and control their schools, a power that fully allows them to decide on the cultural identity of their institutions. Justice Blanchard concluded on April 20, 2021, that Bill 21 violated section 23 of the Canadian Charter, and the case is still before the courts. “
In light of these facts, Mr. Ortona has asked the Minister to reconsider his decision to attempt to apply this directive to English public schools.