New policy on religious materials eyed by Chilliwack school trustees

Furor over distribution of Gideon Bibles sparks debate over who makes policy

The distribution of Gideon Bibles to elementary school students in Chilliwack sparked a hot debate Tuesday night among school trustees over who shapes policy in the school district.

Trustees Heather Maas and Martha Weins adamantly opposed a motion directing school district staff to draft a policy on “distributing materials” in Chilliwack schools, saying to do so would be an “abdication” of their responsibility as school trustees.

“We are the policy-makers,” Maas said. “There’s nothing in our policy, nothing in the School Act that says trustees don’t write policy … It’s not taboo.”

Weins charged that trustees backing away from policy-making “don’t want to take a stand.”

But trustees Doug McKay and Walter Krahn argued that district staff are specialists hired for their expertise to research legislation around policy matters and then bring a recommendation to the board for approval.

“I don’t think that’s abdicating, I think that’s doing our job,” McKay said. “We will decide in the end what the policy looks like, but let them (staff) do the research.”

Trustee Barry Neufeld said he wasn’t happy with policy-making being solely in the hands of staff or trustees.

“I would like to have more input from people who are affected,” he said, and not just the dozen or so that spoke at the Tuesday board meeting.

“I would still like to hear more from the community,” he said.

After several versions of the motion were moved and defeated, trustees finally agreed on wording that will see trustees develop the policy, and then staff will provide a draft policy to the board by the end of March.

Trustee Sylvia Dyck apologized for the “odd duck” of the administrative regulation that sparked the controversy in the first place.

The regulation was approved years ago and has been working “silently” ever since, even though a board policy was never created to back it up.

And the regulation was never questioned until last month when parent Richard Ajabu complained about the practice, saying he believes it contravenes the School Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights.

Ajabu told trustees that his daughter had received “advertising material” from the Gideons offering a free Bible and a website where a “gift catalogue” could be found.

“The Gideons themselves state in the FAQ section of their website that the advertising material … is evangelical in purpose and deliberately designed to appeal to children of  that age,” he said.

But several speakers at the board meeting, including Gideon representatives Henry Esau and Peter Harder, spoke passionately about the historical importance of the Bible and its profound influence on western culture and on the “founding principles” of Canada.

“We do not trample on other cultures or religions,” Harder said.

Some supporters argued that instead of restricting the distribution of the Christian Bible, the school board should encourage other religious groups to follow the Gideons’ lead and let them offer their own religious material to school children, in the interests of religious freedom.

Neufeld said he would support a policy that gave all religions equal access, pointing out that many schools in the district take pride in starting events with First Nations prayers.

“I don’t want to see that restricted, nor do I want to see the Gideons restricted,” he said.

But 16-year-old highschool student Rachelle Graham said she believes school should be about eduction, not religion, which is a private matter that students can pursue elsewhere according to their heart’s desire.

“I think going to school should be about the education,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair to give a Bible to a 10-year-old kid.”

That point of view was echoed by Chilliwack Teachers’ Association president Clint Johnston.

Recalling the days when school started with a prayer, he pointed out how uncomfortable a child from a religious minority felt when faced with the decision to follow the Christian majority and pray, or risk the embarrassment of being different.

Canadian Civil Liberties Association program director Abby Deshman said there is nothing wrong with exposing children to religious materials.

But when schools teach religion, she said, “the aim is not promotion of one belief over others.”

“Public schools should not be used as a vehicle for proselytism, the promotion of one religion over another, the promotion of religious life over secular life or vice versa,” she said.

The school district’s “odd duck” regulation has now been deleted.

Opinion: Chilliwack school district needs to get back to the basics