Religion in Schools (Throwback Thursday)

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By Ken Fox

Do you remember “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us?” These famous phrases are, of course, from the Lord’s Prayer, which has had a presence in Saskatchewan laws since the original School Ordinance of 1901. For many years the provision allowing the recitation of this prayer was the sole exception to a ban on religious instruction in public schools before the last half-hour of the school day.

Here are the original sections:

Religious Instruction

137 No religious instruction except as hereinafter provided shall be permitted in the school of any district from the opening of such school until one half hour previous to its closing in the afternoon after which time any such instruction permitted or desired by the board may be given.

Time for the Lord’s prayer

(2) It shall however be permissible for the board of any district to direct that the school be opened by the recitation of the Lord’s prayer.

The “hereinafter provided” exception does not appear to ever have been exercised.

So children began their day with an incomprehensible liturgy, and ended with a half-hour of presumably Christian religious instruction. Between those times, lessons were strictly secular. Of course, this was not true in all public schools, only those where the local school board permitted or desired it. The allowable time was changed to any half-hour period of the school day in 1967. Looking back at my primary school years in Regina c.1977 – 1986, I don’t recall ever being taught religion, but we did religiously recite the Lord’s prayer every morning, right after singing Oh Canada.

Did I say “incomprehensible?” But surely some explanation of the antiquated language was offered, the purpose of school being for teaching and all? Well maybe, but not after 1943, when “without comment or explanation” was added to the Lord’s prayer exception.

The version I always heard was from the 1928 Anglican Book of Common Prayer, which is very similar to the prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 of the King James Bible of 1611, but uses the word “trespass” instead of “debt.” Two very different concepts, legally speaking, but equally meaningless to a young child. And some versions use “sin” – a more general religious term which may be equivalent to the word “offence” in modern statutes.

Is the Lord’s prayer exception still there? Actually, yes – as it turns out, this Throwback Thursday post is a scam – I’m talking about the present. Check out section 182(3) of the current Education Act, slightly updated but still with “reading or reciting without comment or explanation.”

So to summarize, the only specific religious content endorsed by Saskatchewan law, yesterday and today, for use in public schools, is a prayer telling us to forgive all offences. Not entirely in the spirit of modern law, but a nice idea.

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