“I said, ‘We don’t do this in our religion,’” recalls Clarke, who followed up with an email suggesting yoga be replaced in her son’s class with “alternative exercises which do not have religious origins so that (he) might not feel singled out.”
Her verbal request for an accommodation was granted by the principal, and her son never again participated in yoga. Clarke says she never filled out an official request form, which she later learned is board policy.
About two months later, she says her daughter came home crying, saying her class had participated in an activity and followed along to a video. At the end of the video, which credited The School Yoga Project, the girl realized she had unknowingly done yoga. Clarke later saw a photo on the teacher’s Twitter account that showed her daughter doing what appears to be the tree pose and a meditation practice, and reviewed the video. She spoke with the teacher, and the vice-principal to explain why yoga was incompatible with her faith.
“I really felt like I was viewed as having nine heads, regarding our beliefs,” says Clarke, who took her concerns to the superintendent. She also requested an immediate transfer of her children to another school.
A personnel investigation by Superintendent Paul Valle found there was no record of a request for religious accommodation on file.
“There was no intent to offend you in the matter of religious belief,” explained Valle to Clarke in a June 2017 email she shared with the Star. “In my communication and interviews with the school and staff, it was confirmed that the activities were focused on breathing, stretching and physical exercises and that the content presented had no spiritual or religious context.”
Clarke says she was upset because she felt like she was being told what is an acceptable belief for her and says faith accommodations don’t require a spiritual or religious context. She also felt shut out from the investigation process and couldn’t get answers on what steps were taken and what was asked during those interviews. The whole process was not transparent, she says.
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Cecil Roach, Co-ordinating Superintendent of Education, Indigenous Education and Equity for the board, says his recollection is that Clarke’s wishes were accommodated and that the principal thought students had participated in a mindfulness activity and not yoga.
“Many schools in the province are doing mindfulness,” he told the Star. “This particular parent interpreted that as yoga.”
He says it’s hard to see how yoga would qualify as a faith accommodation, but says it was granted nonetheless to Clarke’s children.
According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, schools must consider accommodation requests for religious beliefs or practices that are sincerely held, and must accommodate them, unless there are reasons of undue hardship (health, safety, cost), or it significantly interferes with education. In some cases, for example, children are accommodated and exempt from physical education, music and dance classes.
Clarke says yoga can be a “very grey area,” which is why she wanted the accommodation for her kids, so they wouldn’t have to make difficult judgments. Some schools in the United States have even banned yoga because of the religious element.
At the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, it’s not uncommon to receive inquiries about whether yoga is endorsed by the Catholic Church.
“It’s more than a simple yes or no response,” says Neil MacCarthy, spokesperson for Archdiocese of Toronto. “Exercise and physical activity, including stretching, is healthy and encouraged. However, the original proponents of yoga, and many who enjoy yoga today, view the activity as a spiritual practice. While no one tends to think of swimming or jogging as spiritual activities, yoga is different in that perspective. The stretching elements involved in yoga are not at issue but using the practice as part of a holistic approach to one’s spirituality would be of concern for many Catholics because of an incompatibility in what the two spiritualities aim to achieve.”
Clarke’s concerns made it all the way up to the school board’s new director, Louise Sirisko, who took over the role in January. She conducted her own review and in the summer shared her draft findings with Clarke, concluding that appropriate steps had been followed. Clarke provided extensive feedback, believing the board had failed to acknowledge mistakes, make anyone accountable and be transparent. In late October, she received a final response from Sirisko, who said the board responded to complaints in a “thorough and fulsome manner” and stuck with her original finding.
Clarke now hopes the committee will make recommendations so other families don’t go through what she did. She says if someone had apologized at the outset for a mistake or a misunderstanding, this matter would not have escalated.
“This started in the school and could easily have ended and been resolved in the school,” she said. “The whole system has failed us.”
Isabel Teotonio is a Toronto-based reporter covering education. Follow her on Twitter: @Izzy74
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