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.”
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.
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.
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
Second, the safeguards within the policy, which are
aimed at preventing proselytizing and the distribution of
discriminatory or denigrating materials, are unrealistic.
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.
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
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
When a religious group hands out religious material,
the line between providing information to inform, and providing
information to convert, is difficult to discern.
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.
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
Abby Deshman works for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in Toronto.