Speech to the BC Civil Liberties Association

Tonight I had the pleasure to speak to the Board of Directors of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association about our campaign to end the distribution of Gideon Bibles in BC schools.

Below is the speech that I presented. I am pleased to report that the Board of the BCCLA has asked their legal staff to help us in our work on the Chilliwack case, the outcome of which will help them decide what further support they can offer.

Gideon Bible distribution as a civil liberties and human rights issue

Presentation for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association Board of Directors

Vancouver, BC (19 Nov 2012) – Good evening and thank you for the opportunity to speak with your organization. The BC Humanist Association is a long-time advocate of human rights, including freedom of speech and inquiry, and the freedom from religion.

Our two Associations have a long history together. A number of current and past BCCLA board members share Humanist values and in the mid-1990s, active Humanist and skeptic Dale Beyerstein championed fights against creationism in the Abbotsford School District as a member of the BCCLA Board of Directors.

Tonight, I want to discuss our current campaign for Secular Schools in BC and how you can support us. It has come to our attention that a number of school districts, notably Chilliwack and Abbotsford, continue to permit the distribution of Gideon Bibles to grade 5 students.

Our organization sees this practice as a violation of the principle of freedom of conscience and religion, enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We believe it is also in direct violation of Section 76 of the BC School Act, which requires all public schools to be “strictly secular and non-sectarian.”

By permitting the distribution of religious advertisements in public schools, these school boards give an impression of state endorsement of one religious worldview. It sends the message that some views are more acceptable than others and it disenfranchises those who do not have the same religion as the majority and those who are non-religious.

Additionally, this practice forces students and parents to publicly take a position on religion by choosing to accept or refuse the materials. Therefore, expanding these policies to allow more religious materials does not allay our concerns. Only those worldviews that have the means and motivation to actively proselytize would have access to what is effectively a captive youth audience. I also personally believe that our public education system was not established for religious proselytizing or promoting religious views over secular ones or vice-versa.

Our aim is not to ban the bible or to censor ideas. There are appropriate ways to raise contentious topics like religion in the classroom and this should be an important aspect of a public education system that seeks to help students develop as informed citizens in a pluralistic society. However, schools should not be elevating any one religious view to the exclusion of others or promoting the uncritical consumption of religious messages.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association outlined similar arguments in their November 13th letter to the Chilliwack Board of Education.

This issue first arose on October 19th when Chilliwack resident Richard Ajabu’s daughter brought home a permission slip, produced by Gideon International, asking whether she could receive a Gideon Youth Testament. In Chilliwack, the distribution had been governed by Regulation 518 which stated simply that “The Board approves the distribution of Gideon Youth Testaments to Grade 5 pupils with parental consent.”

Ajabu raised his concerns with the district and local media. The regulation was finally deleted at the November 13th School Board meeting because the Board saw the rule as an anomaly. Regulations are typically drafted by staff to implement policies passed by the Board. Many of the Board members actually spoke in favour of the continued distribution of Gideon Bibles and they agreed to draft a new policy to permit the “distribution of materials” by March 2013.

Our Association heard about this story on October 25th and issued a statement calling the Chilliwack School District’s policy discriminatory and for the Board to repeal it. After a short investigation of policies from across the province, I found that a number of school districts had vague policies permitting the distribution of materials, including religious ones, with staff consent. The media has reported that at least one of those districts, Abbotsford, also distributes Gideon Bibles. We then called on the Minister of Education to investigate the state of secularism in BC schools and to uphold the School Act, a request he has so far ignored.

Our goal is to maintain pressure on the Chilliwack School District so that they abandon their plans to implement a new policy and to pressure other districts to end this practice. This effort will involve continued lobbying of the school districts and the Minister of Education. And as a last resort, we may need to pursue legal means to achieve our objectives.

As a civil liberties issue, my hope is that the BCCLA will support our efforts in protecting secularism in BC schools. Specifically, we are hoping that you will be able to help us secure a legal opinion to support our position. And if the issue ends up in court or a Human Rights Tribunal, we hope to count on your intervention.

While our organization is nearing its thirtieth anniversary, this is our first major foray into coordinated advocacy. I hope that the BC Civil Liberties Association will be able to assist us in this campaign. Thank you.

Ian Bushfield
Executive Director
BC Humanist Association

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