The Chilliwack school district is the last in the province that permits the distribution of Gideon Bibles in its schools, but the bastion is at risk of toppling, and the people of Chilliwack remain eerily silent on the issue.
An influential humanist group has launched an online petition to prevent the Chilliwack school board from introducing a policy that allows the distribution of religious material in public schools. Currently, the board does not have a policy outlining materials distribution, religious or otherwise. The only exception was a note specifically permitting the Gideons to supply bibles to Grade 5 students, with parental approval. The board deleted the note at the Nov. 13, 2012, school board meeting, and agreed to draft a new materials policy by the end of March 2013.
The Vancouver-based BC Humanist Association launched an online petition last week that calls on the Chilliwack school board to “abandon its plans for a new policy permitting the distribution of materials.” Since the petition went live Jan. 29 on change.org, it has garnered over 180 signatories.
BCHA president Ian Bushfield says providing religious material in public schools violates Section 76 of the BC School Act, which states that all schools must operate “on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles.”
“Our schools should be secular, and not promoting religious ideology,” argues Bushfield, who says there are approximately six BCHA members in Chilliwack.
This uproar is a first for the Chilliwack school district. In the 20 years that trustee Barry Neufeld has been with the board, no one has publicly complained about the Gideons delivering bibles through schools. And so far, the Chilliwack school board has not heard from representatives of the local religious community on the issue. The board itself has not picked a side.
“What we do not want is any religion trying to proselytize and convert children to their belief. Giving one faith group or ideology preference over another is what is not allowed in the School Act,” says Neufeld.
All the same, Neufeld believes it is “absolutely impossible” to fully separate religion from the school system. Banning bible distribution puts a host of other school traditions on the chopping block, such as singing Christmas carols, and renting public school space to faith groups on the weekends – a practice that hauls $200,000 in to the Chilliwack school system every year. Removing all religious affiliation from the district would cause a “major upheaval” in the community, says Neufeld.
Pastor Throness from the Chilliwack Alliance Church concurs.
“If there’s a petition to ban all religious stuff for children, then it’s not simply a matter of whether we distribute bibles or not,” he says.
And removing all religious material from school means subscribing to a humanist viewpoint.
“If you are going to go completely secular in a school system, you are pushing a life philosophy,” says Pastor Throness, who is “sad” that Gideon Bibles are being forced out of schools because he believes they have a role in teaching morality to children.
The school board has not responded to BCHA’s petition, says Heather Maahs, chair of the Education Policy Advisory Committee. This is despite the fact that last week, for every new petition signatory, Maahs received a notification in her inbox – a nuisance that she has requested the organization to cease. The school trustees plan to formulate a new materials distribution policy based on stakeholder consultations, and present it at the school board meeting at the end of March. There is no plan for a public forum.
Meanwhile, the BCHA is collecting signatures throughout February, to deliver to the school board in March. Additionally, Chilliwack parent Richard Ajabu, who initially registered the complaint about the distribution of religious materials at the November school board meeting, has sent an official letter to the Minister of Education calling for the termination of the entire Chilliwack school board for failing to uphold the B.C. School Act.
Gideon Bibles used to be distributed all over the province, recalls Neufeld, but gradually schools have succumbed to pressure from secularist and faith-based groups. Chilliwack now stands alone in B.C. in facilitating the Bibles’ distribution, which it has done for about 70 years. Of the 800 Grade 5 students in Chilliwack, 10 per cent or so accept to receive the Bible every year. The Gideons aren’t scheduled to send out another round of Bibles until Oct. 2013.