FRED CHARTRAND / THE CANADIAN PRESSAn aboriginal elder performs a smudging ceremony. Most respondents to a poll in B.C. oppose introduction of such ceremonies, and other ceremonies with religious significance, in schools
Many British Columbians are open to allowing both mindfulness meditation and Christian prayer in public schools, according to a poll conducted for Postmedia News.
There is little enthusiasm, though, for First Nations prayers or “smudging” ceremonies, with more opposed than favouring the practices, which have recently been the subject of legal action in B.C.
These are two of the surprising results of a Mainstreet Research poll of 5,500 British Columbians, conducted on the eve of Easter, that probed several thorny issues related to religion and education.
* The poll found 45 per cent of British Columbians oppose even partly funding private schools, whether they’re religious or not.
* British Columbians were mixed on many spiritual issues, with 42 per cent believing “mindfulness meditation should be allowed in public schools.” Just 35 per cent opposed the meditative practice which teachers are increasingly teaching their public-school students. It is linked most strongly with Buddhist and Hindu spirituality.
* Though the Lord’s Prayer was banned five decades ago from B.C. public schools, 39 per cent of British Columbians believe Christian prayers should be allowed in schools, while roughly the same proportion were opposed.
* A firm two of three British Columbians reject Muslim ceremonies and prayers in public schools. The only group that backed Islamic prayers in schools were B.C. Muslims, by a whopping 89 per cent margin.
The B.C. Education Act requires public schools to be “secular” and not favour one religion over another.
The Mainstreet poll did not probe whether respondents felt meditation or prayers should be mandatory in schools, or be voluntary or be limited to lunch or after-school hours.
The question on aboriginal smudging and prayers tied into the case of a Port Alberni mother who recently went to B.C. Supreme Court to stop her children’s public school from having students join the rituals.
Candice Servatius objected to her two children taking part in what turned out to be a mandatory smoke-filled in-class aboriginal ceremony to “cleanse” their spirits.
Only 29 per cent of British Columbians supported such aboriginal rituals in public schools, according to Mainstreet, while 37 per cent oppose them and the rest aren’t sure.
Victor Chan, head of Vancouver’s Dalai Lama Centre, was pleased many British Columbians are open to mindfulness meditation to help young students become calm and resilient.
The Dalai Lama Centre has been successfully working for more than a decade with education professors and teachers to have mindfulness meditation widely taught in elementary and high schools.
“The Dalai Lama realized you can only get your message out through the education system,” said Chan.
Chan joins the Tibetan Buddhist leader in considering meditation a “secular” practice, supported by scientific research, that enhances students’ capacity for compassion.
Since Chan appreciated attending a Christian school when he was growing up in Hong Kong, he said he could see why so many British Columbians would want Christian prayers and rituals to become part of daily school routine.
He emphasized, however, that both meditation and prayers should always be voluntary.
The Dalai Lama realized you can only get your message out through the education system
The relatively low support for First Nations prayers and smudging rituals may be a result of people knowing little about them, Chan said.
Lawyer John Carpay, who is helping Servatius launch her lawsuit against smudging ceremonies in B.C. schools, said the poll results in some ways highlight a “popularity contest” between different religious and spiritual practices.
“It’s perfectly fine as an interesting exercise in measuring public opinion. But when it comes to the law about what is permitted in the classroom of a public school, there should be one standard for all religions and all spiritual practices,” Carpay said.
“With Christian prayer having been ousted from public school classrooms, justice demands that the same standard be applied across the board to all religions and spiritual practices.”
Instead of allowing religious practices in schools, a strong majority of British Columbians — three in four — told Mainstreet Research they “believe public school students should take courses about the major world religions.”