At Tuesday evening’s School Board Meeting in Chilliwack, members of the BC Humanist Association were disappointed to see the Chilliwack Board of Education vote unanimously in favour of Policy 518 “Distribution of Information or Materials.”
Statement by Ian Bushfield, Executive Director
Three of our members drove through a rainy afternoon to Chilliwack to attend the School Board Meeting that would see the introduction of a policy designed to replace Administrative Regulation 518 that had been deleted in November. The new policy, governing the “Distribution of Information or Materials,” seemed to be designed expressly to once again allow the distribution of Gideon Bibles to public school students.
The Board room was packed and there was no shortage of people ready to have their say at the public participation portion of the meeting. First to the podium were two members representing Gideons Canada. Unsurprisingly, they both spoke in favour of the policy, but they added that they wanted to see the distribution moved outside of the classroom to an afterschool event, potentially called a “Faith Day” when different worldviews could have their views shared with students who opted into such an event.
One of the Gideons referred to the “well-funded opposition” from outside Chilliwack that was attempting to impose its views on the community. If you believe that we should be better funded, please consider making a tax-deductible donation online.
Next, Richard Ajabu, the parent who initially brought forward a complaint about a permission slip brought home from the Gideons, spoke about his concerns. He was disappointed by the consultation process that lacked meaningful details in the agenda notes and failed to ask for his input. He then read from a letter written by the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, which reiterated their opposition to the policy.
I spoke after Ajabu, highlighting our concerns that the Board failed to consult widely on the issue – asking the Gideons for their input but no other religious groups. Were the Board sincere in their desire to promote diversity and tolerance, they would have sought input from more than one religious ideology in their consultation. I also discussed the seeming contradiction in how the policy prohibited “political or partisan” advertising but was silent on religious materials – suggesting that church groups renting Chilliwack schools may be able to advertise and proselytize in classrooms. I also touched on the Zylbeberg vs. Sudbury Board of Education case at the Ontario Court of Appeal which declared that permission slips “compel students and parents to make a religious statement.” Finally, I asked if the Board was prepared to spend taxpayer dollars to defend this policy. You can view my comments on YouTube.
After my speech, two more local citizens spoke in favour of the policy, with one calling Humanism and evolution a religion that is being propagated by the school system.
The board then ran through a few agenda items before coming to the proposed policy. Trustee Barry Neufeld motioned to adopt the policy, and spoke about his pride in his deep Christian faith that “some groups” think should make him ineligible for public office (note: this is not, nor has ever been my position). In a bizarre turn, he argued that Section 76 of the BC School Act (which calls for the school system to be “strictly secular and non-sectarian”) contravened Section 2a of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of religion and conscience.
Trustee Sylvia Dyck noted that “no one asked” to distribute materials in schools except for the Gideons. This comment is telling, as it suggests to me that this policy is designed to look like it treats all faiths equally, but in reality only serves the narrow interests of Protestant Christianity.
After the vote, I spoke briefly with Cornelia Naylor, reporter for the Chilliwack Times, shook the hand to another supporter we had in the audience, and headed home in the dark and rainy night.
We’re still considering our next options and will be working closely with the BC and Canadian Civil Liberties Unions, Richard Ajabu, and other supporters in Chilliwack on what course of action we can take (including legal options).
I also want to note that Abbottsford, which has had a similar distribution of materials policy for the past few years and has been distributing Gideon Bibles in classrooms is also on our radar, but our focus remains on Chilliwack as we seek to set a Canadian precedent on whether Bibles can be distributed in public school classrooms.
Finally, as part of our broader Secular Schools campaign, please contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any concerns about religious incursions into your local public school system.