Lessons in secularism from a human rights complaint against Bowen Island Montessori

Our education system is tasked with preparing the next generation for life in an increasingly pluralistic country. That system must be accommodating and welcoming to students of all faiths and none, or we risk segmenting our society and allowing extremism to foment.

Bowen Island Montessori School is facing a human rights complaint for demanding a couple sign a letter indicating their full acceptance of the school’s cultural programing before their daughter would be permitted to attend. The couple argues they were the only ones required to sign such a letter in order to register their child after they raised concerns about the school’s focus on Christian celebrations and other aspects of the curriculum that conflicted with their secular, non-materialist and pacifist views. The complaint will be heard in mid-2017.

While human rights law in Canada generally exempts religious organizations (a separate question), this school describes itself as non-denominational or secular. Specifically, it says its approach is to have “no distinction of culture.”

But secularism requires neutrality. A secular organization can no more suppress the views of religious students as it can push a Christian worldview.

The Supreme Court of Canada has linked secularism and multiculturalism in Canada. We should celebrate and welcome pluralism and diversity, something which can only exist when individuals are free from coercion by governments, institutions and wider society. This means every individual is free to believe and practice – or not believe or practice – what they choose, so long as it causes no harm to others.

Quoted from Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16, [2015] 2 S.C.R. 3

Further, for those Humanists who believe the world would be better off with less religion, there is statistical evidence to suggest that the least religious communities are those where people have the most religiously diverse social networks. So anti-theists ought to support efforts to increase diversity in our education system, not attempt to stifle individual differences.

While the school is a private institution and not a a government body (although it receives some public funding), under Canadian human rights law an organization can no more create an unreasonable bar to entry for an atheist as it can hang a “no blacks allowed” sign on the front door. This is an argument that’s been settled since the civil rights era.

The Montessori’s efforts to single out one family discriminated against them for their beliefs and sends a signal to prospective families on Bowen Island that the school requires ideological conformity from its community.

I want to close with a comment from the complainants against the Montessori:

Whether we want to think about it or not, divisions exist on Bowen. The fact that many people haven’t thought about it is largely a reflection of their privilege. We can learn to get along, but learning to get along involves a lot of conversations and also a lot of education for all parties. Preventing diversity from entering the school is counter to promoting these types of conversations that can foster learning. Getting along and building a resilient society isn’t about hiding the differences but rather being able to talk about them and coming up with strategies that are mutually beneficial. The key to creating a resilient and diverse society is about people having close, personal connections with different types of people and especially people who are marginalized in different ways.

As secularists, we must push back against those that would use secularism as a hammer to stifle freedom of religion and defend the rights of marginalized groups to have equitable access to educational opportunities.

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