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Bible distribution inappropriate in public schools

Much has been said about Bibles in public schools. Many have referenced Canada as a “Christian nation,” or spoken of our “Christian heritage” and the need to defend “long-standing traditions.”

Yes, the majority of Canadians describe themselves as Christian, and many would likely agree that Christian values and traditions contribute positively to family life and society. It is also true that the Gideons have been handing out Bibles in public schools for a long time. Relying on these arguments to justify the current practice in public schools, however, misses the point.

Despite the fact that many Canadians are Christians, our government is not. We are a democracy, bound by the rule of law and the Charter of Rights and Freedom’s guarantees of equality, freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. The value of multiculturalism also gets specific mention.

These principles protect our freedom to hold, profess and manifest religious beliefs; ensure that religious minorities are free from state coercion; guarantee that government institutions are open to all; and prohibit discrimination. They also mandate that the government be neutral with respect to religion.

Within a democracy, public schools have a unique mandate, as they are charged with embodying and disseminating our fundamental democratic principles. As expressed by the Supreme Court, a school must be “premised upon principles of tolerance and impartiality so that all persons within the school environment feel equally free to participate.”

With this framework in mind, let me suggest two reasons why the Waterloo Region District School Board’s policy is unacceptable.

First, the reality of its application is that, to the best of my knowledge, only one religious group has ever taken advantage of it. With the absence of other religious (and atheist) texts being made available to families, the policy promotes the Christian faith. A school official’s implicit or explicit endorsement has a great impact on many children. Grade 5 students cannot be expected to distinguish between teachers distributing curriculum textbooks originating from the school board, and teachers distributing religious texts originating from private groups.

Second, the safeguards within the policy, which are aimed at preventing proselytizing and the distribution of discriminatory or denigrating materials, are unrealistic.

The policy states that distributed religious materials should be “provided for informational purposes and not for the purpose of proselytization.” Many religions, however, seek to convert people, a reality that blurs the distinction between proselytizing and informational materials.

The material currently being distributed through the public school system offers a case in point. The Gideons’ Canadian website explains that they place the New Testament in institutions “… to reach our communities for Christ in Canada … so that people will have ready access to God’s Word, that they might receive Christ as their Saviour and Lord....”

Introductory passages in the book they hand out affirm their commitment to “the promotion of the Gospel of Jesus Christ … that all might come to a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour.” It also instructs readers to pray before and after reading.

When a religious group hands out religious material, the line between providing information to inform, and providing information to convert, is difficult to discern.

The policy also states that the materials will be reviewed “to ensure that the materials do not discriminate against or denigrate other groups protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code.” Unfortunately, however, many religious texts contain arguably discriminatory passages. The Bible is no exception: some verses speak strongly against homosexuals; one calls for their death. I do not envy those who are tasked with sorting out which foundational religious texts impermissibly denigrate other groups, and which do not.

This is not to say that the schools should be stripped of any mention of religion, or that children should be denied access to religious texts. An attempt to immunize the schools from all religious material would be counterproductive to the educational mandate. Like any important subject, such texts should be taught, discussed and put in context.

There is a distinction, however, between teaching about religion in a prescribed course of study, and allowing public schools to become a primary and direct distribution conduit for one religion’s belief system.

When discussing appropriate public policy and the role of public institutions, it must be made clear that Canada is not a “Christian nation” – it is a democracy, and our government is religiously neutral. Public schools should not be used as a vehicle for the promotion of one religion over another, or indeed the promotion of religious life over secular life.

Abby Deshman works for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in Toronto.

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