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The British Columbia Court of Appeal has dismissed a lawsuit from a Christian mother who said her kids were illegally forced to participate in an Indigenous “smudging” ritual at their school. It caps a legal battle that began over six years ago, and suggests that teaching kids about religion by having them experience a traditional ceremony first-hand isn’t the same as religious indoctrination.

The saga began in 2015, at John Howitt Elementary School, where mother Candice Servatius learned that her two kids would be attending a school-hosted “traditional Aboriginal smudging ceremony.” She claimed her kids had to hold up a cedar branch while sage smoke wafted over them as part of a “Cleansing Ritual.” All of this was done to introduce students to the practices of the Nuu-chah-nulth, Indigenous peoples from the Pacific Northwest.

By the time Servatius went to the school to complain, the ceremony was already over.

Months later, during another school event, a performer allegedly began a traditional dance with a prayer. All of this led Servatius to file a lawsuit claiming the school’s actions violated her religious freedom.

“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 Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms’ John] Carpay said.

The petition also seeks a court order to prevent School District 70 from engaging in similar actions in the future.

“The distinction here that the school board is not honouring is a difference between teaching about religion and actually practising religion by forcing kids to go through a religious ceremony,” Carpay said.

The school always insisted it was above board. They were merely teaching about religion, not trying to indoctrinate kids into a religion, though they admitted they should’ve made it more clear that participating in the ritual was optional for kids.

Over the course of the next several years, the case bounced from court to court, always in favor of the school district. Now the B.C. Court of Appeal has issued yet another major blow to Servatius. Not only will the other rulings stand—saying this wasn’t religious indoctrination—Servatius will have to pay all relevant court costs for the school district.

“After considering all of the evidence, the judge concluded that mere presence at the smudging demonstration and the prayer by the hoop dancer did not interfere with Ms. Servatius’s religious beliefs but, rather, were efforts to teach children about Indigenous beliefs,” the appellate judge found.

The elementary school is within the traditional Nuu-chah-nulth territories, and approximately one-third of the students within the school district are Indigenous, according to the court.

“It is uncontroversial that public educational institutions need to be involved in reconciliation,” the Appeal Court judge wrote.

“Significant efforts have been made to redress the historic legacy of schools being an unsafe place for Indigenous children and to help create better outcomes for Indigenous students.”

Part of me was shocked by the outcome. If her kids believed they had to participate in the ceremony, then surely a line was crossed, right? But it turns out all the evidence pointed in another direction. According to the Court of Appeal:

… The school employees who were present during the smudging event in the classroom gave evidence that the children were not participating in the smudging, but that they were actually observing it as part of a lesson about others’ beliefs. The adults present gave evidence that the Elder did not take steps to “cleanse” the children, such as blowing smoke over them but, instead, demonstrated what a smudge would look like by waving a small amount of smoke at the walls and doors, all the while explaining what this represented in Indigenous beliefs.

The initial thrust of Ms. Servatius’s case was an attempt to prove that her children participated in a smudging ceremony against their will. She believed that they held cedar branches while having sage smoke fanned over their bodies and spirit. She also claimed that her daughter was “unwillingly subjected to being fanned by smoke”.

The only piece of evidence of active participation and coercion during the smudging came from Ms. Servatius’s daughter who swore an affidavit and was cross-examined about it. She suggested that the Elder who performed the smudging waved smoke over the children’s backpacks and on the desks where they sat. She said the Elder told them that the smoke would give them good luck. The daughter’s evidence was that there was so much smoke it was getting hard to breathe, that she had difficulty seeing, and that some students were coughing so much they were allowed to leave. The daughter also gave evidence that she told her teacher that she wanted to leave the classroom, but the teacher refused to give her permission.

This evidence as to the nature and extent of the smudging was directly contradicted by others present

The bottom line was that students really were just watching the ritual take place. They weren’t forced to join in. They were learning about another culture, not being told anything that interfered with their family’s religious beliefs. Everything Servatius offered as evidence that her kids had to participate in the Cleansing Ritual turned out to be wildly untrue, while the school’s version of the events was far more sensible. They didn’t even call it a “ceremony.” They called it a “demonstration.” It was akin to watching a documentary on the subject, except there were live performers.

Assuming students weren’t forced to participate in the ceremony, it’s hard to argue with this outcome. Understanding the religious beliefs of others, regardless of how true or untrue their beliefs may be, is vital to understanding how societies operate. This was always meant as an educational lesson; there was no conspiracy afoot to convert students into an Indigenous faith via smudging and the Court of Appeal understood that.

Even the hoop dancer’s prayer wasn’t that big of a deal:

… There is a paucity of evidence about the prayer. Ms. Servatius did not lead evidence about the content of the prayer, or how long it was or even how its recitation unfolded in the hoop dancer’s performance despite the fact that her counsel cross-examined teaching staff who were present during the performance. Some present did not even remember it which suggests it was quite brief. The limited evidence about the content of the prayer suggests that the hoop dancer’s prayer was giving thanks and mentioned the word “god”.

The only evidence that the prayer was coercive in some way came from Ms. Servatius’s daughter who testified that children were told to participate by bowing their heads and closing her eyes. However, her evidence was contradicted by other witnesses and rejected by the judge...

Again, if Servatius’ claims were true, she may have had a legitimate case. But since the evidence showed she was wrong or lying, there’s no reason for the church/state separation crowd to worry. Students ought to be exposed to a variety of beliefs without any attempt at coercion or conversion. That’s what happened here. The correct side won.

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Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.