Religious Accommodation – Know the Facts
For many students and families in Manitoba’s schools and communities, there are a number of areas where the practice of their religion may result in a request for accommodation from the school and/or the division. Religious accommodation in Manitoba’s school divisions and schools is to be granted within a context of respect for human rights, welcoming of diversity, and safe schools policies.
Religious Exercises / Instruction Are Governed by the Public Schools Act
It is important to note that The Public Schools Act makes a distinction between religious exercises and religious instruction. Both are governed by separate regulations, protocols, and require separate petitions for implementation.
Religious exercises are to be conducted in a particular school only after the requirements of subsection 84(8) of The Public Schools Act have been met, a petition has been directed to the local school board, and the school board instructs that school to make the necessary arrangements. Where petitioned, religious exercises are to be held each teaching day, and shall be no longer than ten minutes in duration. The exercises are not to be held during regular instructional time. Instructional time is to be preserved and religious exercises held either prior to the start of the school day, or during noon recess.
The Public School Act also allows for religious instruction in schools. This is reflected in The Public Schools Act, Sections 80-83. The Administrative Handbook for Schools (2016) provides guidance on the implementation of the requirements for religious instruction. Authorized religious instruction may take place during school hours, and on such days as approved by the school board by-law, but shall not exceed 2 ½ hours per week.
Petitions Must Meet Government-Defined Criteria for Acceptance
Implementation of religious exercises and religious instruction requires parent/guardian initiated petitions. These petitions must be submitted annually on school by school basis, be initiated by parents/guardians, and meet the following criteria as defined in the The Public Schools Act:
Religious exercises may only be conducted where a petition asking for such exercises (signed by the parents/guardians of 75% of the students in the case of a school having fewer than 80 students or by the parents/guardians of at least 60 students in schools having an enrollment of 80 or more students) is presented to the school board.
School boards are required to pass a by-law authorizing religious instruction if a petition is presented to the school board. The parents or guardians of at least 10 children attending a school having one or two classrooms must sign the petition. For a school having three or more classrooms, the parents or guardians of at least 25 children attending the school must sign the petition.
The Right to Petition Is Not Limited to Any One Faith
Assuming the numerical requirements of the Public Schools Act subsection 84(8) are met, it is conceivable that parents of a variety of faith groups could petition for their own religious exercises. In other words, provided the requirements of subsection 84(8) are met, parents could petition for Buddhist religious exercises, Jewish religious exercises, Christian religious exercises, or other. Parents or guardians signatory to a petition would be entitled to have their children access such religious exercises, and the school board and school will be required to make the necessary arrangements to implement the exercises. However, the parents/guardians making the petition will be responsible for providing whatever prayer book, literature, etc., are essential to the conducting of the religious exercises.
Schools Play No Role in the Petition Process, Except to Inform
The entire petition process is grass-roots driven, with parents/guardians taking the initiative to have religious exercises implemented. Schools play no role in the petition process, and act on a petition only when so advised by the school board. For the purpose of communicating information, schools are permitted to advise their parents/guardians of the provisions of The Public Schools Act. The guidelines may be shared with parents/guardians to facilitate their understanding of the law, and to explain the process necessary for implementation of religious exercises and religious instruction.
School Boards / Schools Do Not Determine Content
The content of religious exercises or religious instruction is defined by those petitioning for such accommodations.
Exercises Are Not Held During Regular Instructional Time
Where petitioned, religious exercises are to be held each teaching day, and shall be no longer than ten minutes in duration. The exercises are not to be held during regular instructional time. Instructional time is to be preserved and religious exercises held either prior to the start of the school day or during noon recess. By holding religious exercises before the beginning of regular classes in the morning, or during the noon hour, the separation of participating and non-participating students can be minimized.
Student Participation Is Opt-In Only
Only those children whose parents/guardians have signed the petition may participate. It is not assumed that those parents/guardians who did not sign the respective petitions, want their children to participate in such exercises. As per Manitoba Education guidelines, it is reasonable for schools to advise their parents/guardians, through school newsletters or other means, that religious exercises or religious instruction is in place at the school, and that those parents wishing to have their children participate, can do so by notifying the school administration.
Teachers/Staff Are Not Compelled to Participate
Participation or supervision by teachers/staff is voluntary. If teachers and other staff are unwilling to conduct or supervise religious exercises, alternate arrangements will be made. This may involve requesting members of the parents’ group petitioning for the exercises to conduct the activity themselves. The principal will be responsible for determining the appropriate supervisory arrangements. Religious instruction shall be conducted by a clergyman, priest, rabbi or other spiritual leader, or by a representative of parents recognized by the school board as constituting a religious group, or by any person including a teacher, duly authorized by such clergyman, priest, rabbi or other spiritual leader.