BC Schools must be strictly secular and non-sectarian

Did you know that BC requires every public school to be "strictly secular and non sectarian"?

In fact, this requirement has been in place since the School Act was first introduced in 1872.

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BC joined Confederation in 1871. It was just that next year, 1872, when the provincial government introduced the School Act.  From the start, they wanted it to be "strictly secular and non sectarian," meaning they wanted to bewelcoming to people of all faiths and none.

Historically, BC has always had more nonreligious people than anywhere else in Canada. It was only 5 or 6% around the turn of the century, but that was still an order of magnitude, in many ways bigger than anywhere else. Part of that was due to BC's unique nature at the frontier of the new country (this is a colonial view of the history of Canada), as it attracted a number of people who were emigrating from Eastern Canada, America and Europe, all looking for places to either escape more established religions - or to set up their own. This is part of why BC has a particularly unique number of utopian movements (to put it kindly).

Of course, religion eventually found its way into BC's school system. This particularly took off in earnest in the 1940s and 50s with the rise of the Red Scare. Combatting godless communism led to a push to have Bible readings and the Lord's Prayer in public schools, so that became part of the School Act first in 1936 and later expanded in 1944. The Act caveated that "otherwise the schools shall be conducted on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles."

Groups like the BC Civil Liberties Association and ours, the BC Humanist Association, opposed the prayers and bible readings as a violation of secularism and the rights of non-Christian students. Finally, following the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, complainants were able to bring a challenge before the BC Supreme Court striking the daily readings down in 1989. This followed an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling to the same effect the year prior. Nevertheless, the BC government would not remove the language from the School Act until 1996.

Later, there would still be ongoing fights into the 1990s. There was creationism being taught in Abbotsford public schools, and our group in the BC Civil Liberties Association again fought and managed to convince the provincial government to take action.

Most prominently, this part of the School Act came up in an early 2000s court case after the Surrey School District had tried to ban LGBT books in public schools. That case wound its way all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, where they said that requirement to be secular means that the trustees can't legislate and govern on the basis of their personal faith. They have to take into account the diversity of their community, and that includes queer students. That case is particularly relevant given renewed efforts by Christian nationalists to ban LGBTQ2s+ inclusive materials in classrooms.

We also learned in 2012 that some school districts were still permitting the Gideons to distribute their Bibles to grade 5 students. We'll tell that story tomorrow but following our lobbying, every district in the province had ceased the practice by 2016.

Today, BC still funds religious schools through the Independent School Act. These are private schools that get 50% of the per student funding of a neighbouring public school. We oppose that and think that money should be rolled back into the public system.

Today, the School Act says that public schools must be secular. They can still teach about religion, but they can't indoctrinate. When teachers discuss religions, whether in social studies or a world religions class, they should include an objective discussion of all religions - and none.

If you're concerned about religion in your child's public schools or in your own school, get in touch with us.

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