Webber Academy appeals $26K fine after denying Muslim student prayers

By Erika Tucker and Sarah Offin
April 17, 2015 | Global News

CALGARY – Calgary’s prestigious Webber Academy is appealing a decision by the Alberta Human Rights Commission to fine the private school $26,000 for not allowing two Muslim students to pray on campus grounds.

In 2011, the two Grade 9 and 10 students were told their praying—which requires bowing and kneeling—was “too obvious” in a non-denominational school.

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

They were then refused enrollment for the following school year. The decision quotes academy president and founder Neil Webber as saying: “Since the policies and procedures of Webber Academy are being ignored by you I wish to formally inform you that your sons – Sarmad Amir and Naman Siddiqui – will not be accepted for enrollment at Webber Academy Foundation for the 2012-2013 school year.”

The students testified that the experience was humiliating and has caused a lasting deep fear during prayer for at least one of them.

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Amira Elghawaby, a human rights coordinator from the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said the students started at the school feeling confident in “being Canadian as well as having their Islamic faith” but that soon changed.

“It created a situation where they felt quite humiliated and that their dignity was injured in the process,” she said. “In fact, one of the students developed a fear and that was recognized by the tribunal that actually awarded him special damages.”

In a statement Thursday, Webber said his response to the tribunal’s decision to fine the school was “disappointment.”

“A key pillar of our founding principles is that the school be a non-denominational environment in which children can thrive and focus on their academic success.”

Elghawaby said there’s a difference between running a non-denominational school and discriminating individual citizens on the basis of religious beliefs.

“We’re not asking—and it wasn’t being asked—for the school to adopt any kind of religious practice themselves,” she said.

“All the school is being requested here is to make a very reasonable accommodation to allow members of their student population to practice a fundamental part of what they see as a sincerely-held religious belief.”

She said it’s “unfortunate” the school wants to appeal the decision, and that the case law supports the students’ request.

“Our courts have said that no one should be expected to park their religious beliefs at the door of any public institution – whether it’s a court room, school…people have a right to express themselves based on their religious beliefs in this country, and that’s just reflected in this decision.”