'Haven't changed a thing:' Private school much the same despite prayer appeal

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CALGARY — An Alberta private school that five years ago was found to have discriminated against two Muslim students by not allowing them to pray is running much the same as it always has, says the school’s founder.

“We haven’t changed a thing,” said Neil Webber, president of Webber Academy in Calgary.

“We still keep having Muslim students coming here and enrolling. It hasn’t had any impact on our operations.”

Last summer, a Court of Queen’s Bench judge upheld a decision by the Alberta Human Rights Commission that found Webber Academy unlawfully discriminated against the students. The judge also upheld a $26,000 fine.

The boys, who were in Grades 9 and 10, testified that praying is mandatory in their Sunni religion. But Sarmad Amir and Naman Siddiqui were told in 2011 that their praying — which requires bowing and kneeling — was “too obvious” in a non-denominational school.

They continued to hold their prayers in secret in the school or outside in the snow.

Webber Academy indicated that it would challenge the court ruling, and last week the school’s lawyers filed its defence with the Alberta Court of Appeal and the human rights commission.

Webber wouldn’t reveal what the new argument involves other than it focuses more on the Charter of Rights.

He said the school has always made it clear to all incoming students and their parents that it is non-denominational and there is no space in the school for praying.

“We continue to operate on the basis that we are a secular school and there’s no prayer space for anybody that would ask for it,” he said. “And nobody’s asking for it other than the families who took us to the human rights commission.”

Webber couldn’t say how many of the school’s 1,000 students are Muslim.

“We don’t ask them when they come in, but we have many.”

The decision to appeal the ruling is a disappointment to Calgary Imam Syed Soharwardy, founder and president of the Islamic Supreme Council of Canada. He suggests there may be something else behind the move.

“It is very upsetting. It is just arrogance or maybe they have just made an issue of their ego,” said Soharwardy.

“It’s a very simple case. Those two students were not asking for any special treatment. They were not asking for space or funding. They were asking for a few minutes break so they could pray.”

Soharwardy said he doesn’t understand why Webber Academy continues to challenge the human rights decision.

“This is not realistic and it’s sad that they are fighting this thing. I think they should accept it.”

Webber said he doesn’t regret the legal battle and isn’t taking anything for granted at the Appeal Court level.

“I thought we had a pretty good case before the human rights commission and the Court of Queen’s Bench, but it didn’t turn out that way.

“We’re thinking that we’ve got a good case, but I don’t think it’s going to be a slam dunk.”

— Follow @BillGraveland on Twitter

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