Candice Servatius is suing the school district in Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada, for allegedly forcing children to take part in an Aboriginal spiritual cleansing ceremony in September 2015.
The Justice Center for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), a Canadian non-profit legal group, is representing Servatius against School District 70 in British Columbia's Supreme Court, notes CBC News.
John Howitt Elementary School told parents in a letter that a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth tribe would lead the ceremony in which kids would "experience cleansing of energy from previous students in our classroom, previous energy in our classroom and cleanse our own spirits to allow GREAT new experiences to occur for all of us," notes the Calgary Herald.
According to the letter, each of the kids and the classroom would be "smudged" with smoke from some sage that would erase "bad energy, bullying, accidents, sad circumstances… and ensure the room is safe for all and only good things will happen."
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However, the letter did not say when this ceremony was going to happen. Servatius asserts that when she went to the school to learn more she was told that it had already occurred.
Servatius said in a complaint letter to the school board that her then-third-grade son got the school letter, but her fifth-grade daughter didn't get it and was subsequently told that all students had to be part of the ceremony, and how "it would be disrespectful if they did not."
The mom alleges that her daughter "feared consequences … and was told that it would be rude" to depart the classroom.
Servatius insisted that she supported lessons about other cultures, but opposes "the forced participation in spiritual/religious practices."
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John Carpay, president of the JCCF, told CBC News:
This is contrary to the School Act which expressly prohibits religion in the classroom, religious practices, and it is also contrary to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The distinction here that the school board is not honoring is a difference between teaching about religion and actually practicing religion by forcing kids to go through a religious ceremony
Servatius wants the court to issue a ruling that stops the school from conducting any more similar ceremonies.
In response to the legal action, Greg Smyth, the superintendent of School District 70, said: "Our only comment is that our schools operate on a secular, inclusive and non-discriminatory basis, but there is teaching and learning about different cultures and traditions, and that is an important part of learning."
The lawyer representing the school district said in a letter in October:
The actions of the School do not constitute it professing, adopting or favoring one belief to the exclusion of all others.
The School District does not agree that either of the activities were impermissible, but does agree, with respect to the cleansing, that it could have been made clearer to students and parents the voluntary nature of participation and that students were free to opt out.
According to the letter, the principal did apologize for a lack of clarity and will review event policies.