B.C. mother asks court to keep aboriginal ‘cleansing’ ceremony out of public schools

A B.C. mother is asking a court to intervene in her freedom of religion complaint against her children’s school after an in-class aboriginal ceremony to “cleanse” their spirits and classroom to ensure “only happen.”

The ceremony at John Howitt Elementary School in Port Alberni came at the start of the 2015 school year.

Candice Servatius, whose two children attended the school, is concerned with the religious nature of the event that would violate provincial legislation, she says in documents filed in the Supreme Court of British Columbia.

A letter to parents said the ceremony would be led by a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth, a group of West Coast First Nations, and outlined their belief “everything is one; all is connected” and “everything has a spirit and energy.”

The students would “experience cleansing of energy from students in our classroom, energy in our classroom and cleanse our own spirits to allow GREAT new experiences to occur for all of us,” it added.

Each student would be “smudged” by having smoke from burning sage fanned over the body and spirit. The classroom and furniture was also to be cleansed, erasing “bad energy, bullying, accidents, sad circumstances… and ensure the room is safe for all and only good things will happen.”

The letter did not say when the ceremony would take place.

Servatius went to the school the next day to discuss her concerns over an event “of a spiritual nature” taking place in the classroom, she said in court documents, but she was told the event had already happened.

Her son, in Grade 3 at the time, received the letter; her daughter, in Grade 5, did not, she said. Her daughter was told that everyone had to take part and that “it would be disrespectful if they did not,” she said in a letter of complaint to the school board.

Her daughter experienced anxiety because she “feared consequences … and was told that it would be rude” to leave.

Four months later, the mother said, the school hosted another First Nations event at the school that featured a .

Servatius said she supports her children other and traditions but does not agree with “the forced participation in spiritual/religious practices.”

Through her , Servatius declined an interview.

John Carpay, a Calgary-based lawyer and president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, which is championing her case, said the school violated Servatius’s rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and also violated the B.C. School Act.

There is a huge difference between a religion and coercing them to participate

This says “no religious dogma or creed is to be taught in a school.”

“It is entirely appropriate to teach students about other religions but there is a huge difference between teaching children about a religion and coercing them to participate in a religious ,” Carpay said.

“Either you allow religion in school and open the gates wide — and then you allow the Our Father prayer of Christians, roll out the prayer rugs and pray towards Mecca, and conduct an aboriginal spiritual smudging ceremony — or the door is closed and it is closed for everybody,” he said.

“You can’t have a double standard.”

The school has just learned of the court petition and will study it before commenting, said Greg Smyth, superintendent of schools for School 70.

“All of our schools operate on a secular, inclusive and non-discriminatory basis,” he said. “But there is teaching and learning about different cultures and traditions, and that’s an important part of learning.”

Servatius is seeking a court order declaring that the school imposed prayer, religious ritual and spiritual practice on children, violating the charter’s freedom of religion clause.

She also seeks a ban on further religious exercises at any school event and her court costs.

The school district has 21 days to respond.

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