Only seven districts enshrine secularism in BC schools

S76 of the School Act: (1)	All schools and Provincial schools must be conducted on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles. (2)	The highest morality must be inculcated, but no religious dogma or creed is to be taught in a school or Provincial school.

Despite the legal requirement that all schools be “strictly secular,” our initial review has found that only 7 of the 60 public school districts in British Columbia have a policy that explicitly limits religious proselytization in schools.

Historically, a number of districts have allowed the distribution of Gideon Bibles to grade 5 students. This was pure religious proselytizing and clearly offended the School Act and Human Rights Tribunal rulings in other provinces.[1] The BCHA previously surveyed all school districts in the province to see how many maintained policies permitting the distribution of Gideon Bibles and we were instrumental in ending the practice in the final districts to permit it. This included Chilliwack (2015), Abbotsford (2016) and Cariboo-Chilcotin (2016).

As kids across BC return to school today, we wanted to determine what protections those students have from religious proselytization.

Over the past month, our summer intern Hunter Yaworski pored over the website of every school district. Specifically, he looked at the administrative procedures manuals to document whether they had any policies to implement the secularism requirement, or that even just mentioned religion in schools.

Of the 59 districts surveyed (the website for SD49 – Central Coast was unavailable), only seven had such policies, and there was a pretty substantial variation in their level of detail.

SD5 – Southeast Kootenay

The procedures of Administrative Procedure 153 - Advertising state:

  1. Distribution of materials supplied by genuine, community-oriented organizations may be authorized by the Superintendent, provided that they do not demand undue disruption of school time or routine, and provided that they do not contain religiously oriented or inflammatory material which might create unfavorable community reaction. [emphasis added]

The policy was last updated August 15, 2021.

SD35 – Langley

Administrative Procedure 207 - Conduct related to secular and non-sectarian principles is a detailed policy. Its Background references the School Act requirements but then goes on to state:

However, the District believes it must not prevent teachers from exploring with students the contribution that religious values and beliefs have made to the social, cultural and historical development of civilizations.

While religious writings provided by outside groups shall neither be advertised nor distributed to students, objective discussion of world religions as they relate to aspects of prescribed, authorized and locally developed curriculum are permitted in District schools.

There are six procedures to the policy. The first permits "comparative religious studies, guest speakers or multi-cultural field trips and school activities" when they are approved by the principal. The second permits religious works in school libraries. The third bans staff from the "endorsement or diminution of any one belief or religious tenet over another." The fourth permits religious events to be included in school announcements, at the discretion of the principal. The fifth permits "voluntary attended activities which inform, but do not recruit or indoctrinate students" to be held on school premises outside school hours, at the discretion of the principal. And the sixth allows the district to rent school facilities to religious groups.

The policy was adopted on December 15, 2020.

SD37 – Delta

Administrative Procedure 152 - Advertising, canvassing and commercial solicitation is nearly identical to AP153 in SD5.

  1. Distribution of materials supplied by genuine, community-oriented organizations may be authorized by the Superintendent or designate, provided that they do not demand undue disruption of school time or routine, and provided that they do not contain religiously oriented or inflammatory material which might create unfavourable community reaction. [emphasis added]

The policy was approved in May 2013.

SD39 – Vancouver

Administrative Procedure 207 - Conduct related to secular and non-sectarian principles is largely the same as AP207 in SD35, with the caveat in the fourth procedure that events and activities "as differentiated from writings" may be reported in school announcements.

The policy was last revised September 24, 2018.

Additionally, Administrative Procedure 153 - Advertising, canvassing and commercial solicitation contains identical language to AP152 in SD5 and AP153 in SD5. Although SD39's policy includes the following additional line in the background:

The distribution of hate literature, either inside the schools or on school grounds is prohibited.

Finally, Administrative Procedure 220 - District Programs (Choice) requires that such programs:

Be free from any religious, political or ethnic affiliation.

SD44 – North Vancouver

Policy 405: Political/Religious Activities or Materials is a detailed document. It expressly prohibits the distribution of religious materials ("for the purpose of proselytism") and "meetings of a denominational religious nature" as an extra-curricular activity.

The Board will refrain from allowing any activities or distribution of materials in its schools and/or on Board property that are political or religious in nature and which proselytize.

It is also the only policy to include the following definitions:

Non-sectarian: not affiliated with or restricted to a particular religious denomination

Proselytize: attempt to persuade others to adopt one’s own belief

The policy was last revised on December 15, 2010.

SD48 – Sea to Sky

Policy 805 Non-Partisan/Secular Position is a very brief document. It exclusively deals with signs and posters on school property. In its entirety:

The Board of Education, School District No. 48 (Sea to Sky), believes that the school system in the district should reflect non-partisan and secular values. Therefore, the Board will not endorse any displays of political partisanship or religious beliefs, including:

  1. No signs or posters of political or religious nature shall be put up on schools;
  2. If such signs or posters are found on school property, they should be removed forthwith by any school board employee.

The policy was last revised January 8, 2020.

SD68 – Nanaimo-Ladysmith

Administrative Procedure 250 - Religious and Political Activities in Schools bans the teaching of religious dogma and the distribution of religious materials.

No religious dogma or study of political activities shall be taught or distributed in schools. Political activities should not be organized in schools or take place during the school day unless they are related to the provincial curriculum

The procedure includes exceptions for mock elections, debate or discussion in class of current issues and "Traditional Aboriginal welcomings and greetings as part of the Local Education Agreements and the goal towards reconciliation." It also states that,

The Board of Education will refrain from the distribution of political and religious materials which attempt to persuade others to adopt one’s own belief.

The policy was effective March 2017.

SD68 has several other policies that allude to the secularism requirement.

Administrative Procedure 223 - Selection of Learning Resources includes a selection criteria for 'social considerations' for learning resources. Among those considerations are belief systems:

Belief System: are religion, philosophy and/or political ideologies presented with a clear purpose and one belief system is not advocated over another? Is the representation respectful and free from generalization and prejudice? Does the content of the resource allow for multiple perspectives? Over the course of the year, do the sum of the resources present more than one belief system?

Administrative Procedure 232 - Programs of Choice requires that new programs:

Be free from any religious or ethnic affiliation

Administrative Procedure 319 - Fund Raising and Advertising alludes to the secularism requirement in two points:

1.6 All fund raising and advertising activities must be secular in nature and ensure that there is no religious dogma taught or promoted and that the activity of the school is not used to advance nor inhibit any particular religion.

2.11 Where schools are permitted to participate in fund raising activities with an agency affiliated with a religious organization they must show due diligence in ensuring that learning activities such as this are devoid of any religious teaching or promotion in their documentation or resources.

As can be seen, these policies vary from very simple statements that address only some issues (like posters or the distribution of third-party materials) to a few very detailed policies that consider the multiple ways religious dogma could be promoted within a public school. Even where the policies are detailed though, they may centre a pro-religious worldview that asserts the "contributions" that religious values have made.

What is particularly notable is that none of the policies reviewed reflected the requirement of strict secularism applies to the school boards themselves. In the 2002 Supreme Court of Canada case of Chamberlain v Surrey School District No 36, Chief Justice Beverly McLachlin wrote for the majority that, 

[25] In summary, the Act’s requirement of strict secularism means that the Board must conduct its deliberations on all matters, including the approval of supplementary resources, in a manner that respects the views of all members of the school community. It cannot prefer the religious views of some people in its district to the views of other segments of the community. Nor can it appeal to views that deny the equal validity of the lawful lifestyles of some in the school community. The Board must act in a way that promotes respect and tolerance for all the diverse groups that it represents and serves.

In other words, school boards themselves have a duty to operate in a strictly secular manner. This means we would expect a policy within the Board Policy Handbook that defines how the board would operationalize this requirement (see SD39's as an example). Rather, almost all of the examples above are from the Administrative Procedures Manuals of individual districts. That manual is used by the Superintendent as they direct staff.

During his review, Hunter also looked for policies explicitly promoting the inclusion of LGBTQ2S+ students, and whether the districts had an anti-racism policy. We’re still digging into the results of those latter categories, and we will also be looking for policies on sexual health education. We also need to dig deeper into the policies we listed above and whether we missed any districts.

As has been our challenge in documenting whether municipal councils open with prayers, we had to contend with a lot of difficulty to navigate websites in this review. So it's possible we've missed some policies (please let us know and we'll update our list!). However, we were eager to bring you these initial results on the first day of classes.

Even from this initial scan, we can see that there’s a wide discrepancy in how well our schools are doing at enacting the secularism requirement and in making schools inclusive for students from marginalized communities.

We can only complete this review with your support. Please consider donating to fund our work defending secularism in BC schools.


Finally, local elections are happening in BC on October 15. This is your opportunity to elect trustees to your local school board. We encourage you to ask your local candidates whether they are committed to defending secularism and the rights of marginalized students in your schools.

[1] Read the full ruling from the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal

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