Prior to 1944, in British Columbia, the Public Schools Act (1872) permitted the use of the Lord’s Prayer in opening or closing school. In 1944, the government of British Columbia amended the Public Schools Act to provide for compulsory Bible reading at the opening of the school day, to be followed by a compulsory recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. This amendment appeared as section 167 of the Public Schools Act, and read as follows:
167. All public schools shall be opened by the reading, without explanation or comment, of a passage of Scripture to be selected from readings prescribed or approved by the Council of Public Instruction. The reading of the passage of Scripture shall be followed by the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, but otherwise the schools shall be conducted on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles. The highest morality shall be inculcated, but no religious dogma or creed shall be taught. 1948, c.42, s.167
The compulsory nature of the Bible reading and prayer recitation was slightly modified by regulations drawn up by the Council of Public Instruction. These regulations provided that either a teacher or student who has conscientious ground for objecting to the religious observances may be excused from them. The procedure to be followed in such cases was outlined in the regulations, which follow in full:
Division (15)—Scripture Readings (Section 167)
15.01 Where a teacher sends a written notice to the Board of School Trustees or official trustee by whom he is employed that he has conscientious objections to conducting the. ceremony of reading prescribed selections from the Bible and reciting the Lord’s Prayer (as provided by Section 167 of the Public Schools Act), he shall be excused from such duty, and in such case it shall be the duty of the Board of School Trustees or official trustee concerned to arrange with the Principal to have the ceremony conducted by some other teacher in the school, or by a school trustee, or, where neither of these alternatives is possible, by one of the senior pupils of the school or by some other suitable person other than an ordained member of a religious sect or denomination.
15.02 Where the parent or guardian of any pupil attending a public school sends a written notice to the teacher of the pupil stating that for conscientious reasons he does not wish the pupil to attend the ceremony of reading prescribed selections from the Bible and reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the opening of school, the teacher shall excuse the pupil from attendance at such ceremony and at his discretion may assign the pupil some other useful employment at school during that period, but the pupil so excused shall not be deprived of any other benefits of the school by reason of his non-attendance at the ceremony.
In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms received royal assent. Section 2 of the charter guaranteeing freedom of conscience and freedom of religion trumped Section 167 of the Public Schools Act (1872). Sixteen years later in 1996, based on precedent that would be established in Ontario (1989), required recitation of the Lord’s Prayer as outlined in the Public Schools Act would be held to violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In 1989, Joan Russow challenged, in the British Columbia Supreme Court, the Public Schools Act’s requirement that in British Columbia all public schools were to be opened with the Lord’s Prayer and a Bible reading. The argument was similar to the Zylberberg case and the result was the same: The offending words in the Public Schools Act were removed as being inconsistent with freedom of conscience and religion guarantees in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Further following the Zylberberg case to strike down use of the Lord’s Prayer in schools, the British Columbia Supreme Court incorporated the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision in Zylberberg in its entirety.
From 1871 to 1989, observance of school prayer had declined.
With the unfavorable court decision, the requirement for Christian morning exercises was replaced with the following clauses found in the School Act (1996) in British Columbia.
76 (1) All schools and Provincial schools must be conducted on strictly secular and nonsectarian principles.
(2) The highest morality must be inculcated, but no religious dogma or creed is to be – taught in a school or Provincial school.