Policy clears way for resumption of Bible distribution in Chilliwack schools

Local parent Richard Ajabu, who made the initial complaint about bible distribution in Chilliwack
Local parent Richard Ajabu, who made the initial complaint about bible distribution in Chilliwack's schools, said new Policy 518 is 'shameful' and 'disappointing.' ALINA KONEVSKI/ PROGRESS

The Chilliwack Board of Education unanimously approved a broad new policy for distributing materials and information in schools at Tuesday’s board meeting that satisfied the religious community, but triggered complaints about the separation of church and state.

According to new policy 518, “Recognized charitable organizations and other organizations having educational or community service attributes may be authorized by the superintendent of schools or the superintendent’s delegate to have information or materials distributed.”

Members of the board and the gathered public took this to mean that the status quo will remain, and that non-profit religious groups will be allowed to distribute bibles to children at school, upon parental approval.

The issue of materials and information distributed in Chilliwack public schools ignited when local parent Richard Ajabu complained at the Nov. 13, 2012, school board meeting about a permission slip his child received from Gideons International. The paper was a glossy, in colour, description of the Christian organization, along with a request for parental approval to receive a free Gideon Bible.

At that meeting, the school board had deleted the note granting special permission to the Gideons to distribute Bibles, and resolved to create a new policy by March 2013.

The superintendent of the school district, Evelyn Novak, says she consulted extensively with the community about this policy. This included talks with the aboriginal and education policy advisory committees, consisting of students, teachers, staff, and parents. Novak also met with Gideon representatives, who expressed support of the final draft.

Finally, Novak reviewed petitions that the community has submitted over the last few months.

This included 403 signatures on an online petition started by the BC Humanist Association to “Prevent the distribution of religious materials in public schools,” and a similar letter from the BC Civil Liberties Association. BCHA says that distributing bibles in public schools contravenes Section 76 of the B. C. School Act, which requires that education be strictly secular. In doing so, such a policy “represents an attempt to use public schools for religious proselytizing.”

Novak also received petitions from First Avenue Church (with 150 signatures), Chilliwack Alliance Church (380 signatures), Central Community Church (unspecified number of signatures), and 311 signatures from an online petition started by parent Mike Unruh. These groups support a policy in which parents have the option to approve their child receiving a Bible at school.

In total, there were 841 signatures in support, and 403 against. Of the BCHA signatures, only 69 were from Chilliwack residents.

President of the Chilliwack chapter of Gideons International, Henry Esau, supported the new policy at the board meeting on Tuesday, and said the signatures collected by the churches indicate “there is a widespread interest and support regarding bible distribution in our school system.”

“We also need to recognize that the voices of opposition have garnered their support largely from well-funded and well-organized interest groups based outside our constituency. Indeed, right from many parts of our country,” Esau continued. “This issue is a local issue, and in all fairness, the voices of opposition should solicit their support from our local community, where the issue resides, rather than go national.”

Richard Ajabu, however, displayed anger because he felt the policy was unjust, “shameful,” and “disappointing,” and that it “whitewashed” the practice of distributing Bibles in schools.

“I would encourage you to hold on, and consult the public,” Ajabu told school trustees. “The list of consultations looked very inclusive, except the public was not there. The person, the very family, that precipitated this, was not even consulted. And yet the Gideons were.”

Several board trustees spoke in favour of the policy, explaining that they felt it provided freedom to groups of all faiths to introduce children to different ideologies.

“I think this policy absolutely nails it,” said trustee Heather Maahs. “I think what we have opening the door to our students getting a better education, by way of learning about any different non-profit organization or churches that want to distribute materials.”

The Gideons have been distributing Bibles to Chilliwack schoolchildren for about 70 years. Annually, approximately 10 per cent of students elect to receive one. Policy 518 of the Chilliwack Board of Education follows in the footsteps of the Abbotsford school district, which instituted a similar inclusive policy. The two districts are alone in B. C. to allow Bible distribution in public schools.

Both BCHA and Ajabu made reference to taking the fight to keep Bibles out of schools to court.

“If the board does pass the policy in its current form, are they prepared to fight this battle, are they prepared to spend tax-payer dollars, fighting this all the way to court?” said BCHA president Ian Bushfield.

Ajabu had the final word.

“I will discuss with other people and decide how to proceed. But this policy is clearly breaking section 76.”

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