Alberta school that didn't let Muslim students pray loses appeal of $26K fine

A judge has upheld a human rights decision that found a Calgary private school discriminated against two Muslim students by not allowing them to pray. The boys continued to hold their prayers in secret in the school, or even outside in the snow, with one telling an earlier tribunal: 'I had this intense sense of shame and humiliation.'

Webber Academy in Calgary was fined $26,000 in 2015

The Court of Appeal of Alberta says the Alberta Human Rights Commission's decision to fine Webber Academy $26,000 for not allowing two Muslim students to pray contained errors. (CBC)

An Alberta judge has upheld a human rights decision that found a private school discriminated against two Muslim students by not allowing them to pray.

The Alberta Human Rights Commission tribunal found in 2015 that Webber Academy in Calgary unlawfully discriminated against the students and fined the school $26,000.

The boys, who were in Grades 9 and 10, testified that praying is mandatory in their Sunni religion.

The school, in appealing the tribunal's decision to the Court of Queen's Bench, argued that the boys' parents were told Webber Academy was non-denominational and there was no space in the school for praying.

"The tribunal applied well-established principles of law. For many years, public and private schools have been required to adhere to human rights legislation in offering their educational services to the public," wrote Justice Glen Poelman in a decision posted this week.

"Discrimination is permitted only when reasonable and justifiable as determined by well-established principles."

Poelman said the tribunal made no errors in its decision and the damages awarded were reasonable.

School president Neil Webber said the board must now decide how to proceed, whether to accept the latest decision or send it to the Alberta Court of Appeal.

"It's not a decision that we like," Webber told the Calgary Eyeopener.

"Webber Academy is a non-denominational secular school welcoming students from many different cultures and backgrounds and we had established the policy of no space be provided on campus for prayers or other religious activities. We were wanting to separate the practice of religion from the provision of secular education and both the Alberta human rights tribunal and appeal judge don't agree with that."

The judge said the school does deserve some credit.

"Webber Academy ... adopted a public policy of welcoming young people of many faiths and cultures, and to exemplify its policy, published photographs of students with turbans and facial hair even though these practices contravened usual school policies," Poelman said.

"For some reason, it drew the line at Sunni prayer rituals, conducted in private, in a place that was convenient to the school and the students from time to time."

The students, Sarmad Amir and Naman Siddiqui, were told in 2011 that their praying — which requires bowing and kneeling — was "too obvious" in a non-denominational school.

They continued to hold their prayers in secret in the school, or even outside in the snow.

"I had this intense sense of shame and humiliation, despite that I was just exercising my right as a Canadian citizen, as a human being, to practice my faith," Siddiqui testified before the human rights tribunal.

A prominent Calgary imam welcomed the court's decision.

"I agree with the decision because those young boys were just practising their rights and their rights should be respected," said Syed Soharwardy of the Al-Madinah Calgary Islamic Assembly.

He is also the founder and current president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada.

"They're not ... causing any disturbances. They are not causing any nuisance. They are just praying. We have to respect the rights that every Canadian citizen has and they have the right to worship."

Despite the matter ending up in court, Soharwardy said he doesn't believe there was any malice involved in Webber Academy's stance.

"I do not believe they had any bad intentions to stop these young boys from prayer. I think they just did not understand the legal rights that these boys had. I don't believe it was a racist position."

Soharwardy suggested Webber Academy should consider changing its policy and allow all denominations to pray if they want to.


With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

With files from John Cotter