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Public board erred with plan to distribute Gideon bibles

Here we go again, round and around the religious roundabout.

When it comes to potentially divisive issues that simmer and occasionally surface in multicultural Waterloo Region, you can count on differing religious beliefs to top the troublesome list. You can also rely on most public school board trustees thoughtlessly blundering into such a sticky quagmire.

This week, a Muslim mother in Waterloo opposed a foolish move by a majority of Waterloo Region District School Board trustees to allow schools to distribute free bibles for Gideons International. Idrisa Pandit, who has a son in Grade 5 at Mary Johnston Public School, went public with her objection to public schools that are supposed to be secular getting sucked into distributing religious material.

Pandit objected to the Gideon proposal even though bibles will go only to parents of who request them. Trustees are offering a similar opportunity to distribute religious material for any other religious groups.

I agree with Pandit’s courageous stand.

If the school board approached this volatile issue with a clean record when it comes to unfairly championing Christian beliefs over those of other religious groups in our diverse, multicultural community, I might not find fault with the Gideon proposal. Instead of proselytizing non-Christians, trustees would merely be offering free bibles to families that want to read the historical, some say fictional material.

Trouble is, our public school board has an atrocious record when it comes to favouring Christian beliefs over those of other religions.

I don’t want to see us return to a bigoted time when local trustees interpreted the word “public” as “Christian” and believed there was nothing wrong with a religion-in-schools program where members of the clergy — Protestant members — were brought into classrooms to ram their very questionable beliefs down the captive throats of children. That situation was made worse by the fact kids from families that had different religious beliefs would be centred out, often ridiculed by other students and directed to sit outside in the corridor while Christian force-feeding took place.

At the time I was told by former trustee Lorne Shantz, who championed religion-in-schools week, he had no time for immigrants who objected to Christianity being taught in public schools. He said when in Rome, they should behave like Romans and they should go back where they came from if they didn’t like Christianity in schools.

The school board finally abandoned its outdated stance when local Christian ministers joined with protesting voters to insist schools leave religious teaching to parents and churches.

Displaying a remarkable lack of leadership, our simplistic school board chair Mike Ramsay now insists there’s nothing wrong with the Gideon plan because any religious group approaching the board with a similar request to share information will be able to send religious material home to parents requesting the information.

Too bad it’s not that simple.

I predict Ramsay and nine naive, misguided trustees who approved the Gideon proposal will soon be flat on their backsides, skidding down a slippery slope when one of our borderline religions takes them up on their offer to have schools distribute material. Trustees will then have to deal with the perception they give board approval to a variety of outrageous fundamentalist beliefs.

They will then run the risk of backlash from disgruntled Christians who, while they might be supporting the Gideon proposal this week, will have difficulty stomaching what they will see as objectionable, possibly discriminatory material distributed through public schools by fringe religions.

In such a minefield of explosive, sometimes violently held beliefs, public trustees should follow the sensible lead of other large boards in Ontario and refuse to get involved in religious issues.

They should encourage schools to study world religions in a carefully balanced, historical and universal fashion and avoid any situation where they favour Christianity over other religions or even create the perception they support one set of beliefs over another.

Kitchener journalist Frank Etherington writes on alternate Thursdays. He welcomes comments at

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