Despite inflammatory headlines suggesting otherwise, the rules of the School Act and policies of the Vancouver School Board apply to student clubs in public Vancouver high schools.
That was the message that was delivered to students at Eric Hamber Secondary who recently founded a Catholic students club.
On November 15, BC Catholic reported that grade 11 student Timothy Que had launched a Catholic Club, "to help people get holier and teach the teachings of the Catholic Church.” On December 2, the publication alleged that officials had "slapped restrictions" on the club.
Public schools in BC are governed by the provincial School Act, which states:
76 (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.
The Vancouver School Board operationalizes these requirements through Administrative Procedure 207, "Conduct related to secular and non-sectarian principles." It states that "Voluntarily attended activities which inform, but do not recruit or indoctrinate students may be held on school premises outside of regular instructional hours, as determined by the Principal in consultation with the Director of Instruction."
When the first story ran in BC Catholic, a few supporters contacted us about the club as the seeming enthusiasm of Que, his pastor and the archdiocese's youth-ministry coordinator suggested the club may exist to not simply provide a place for Catholics but to actively promote Catholicism on campus. The question was whether they simply intended to talk about Catholicism or to proselytize it.
We reached out to the VSB to learn a bit more about the District's procedures around student clubs. We were told roughly the same as was reported in BC Catholic: the district follows the School Act, its polices and obligations under the Human Rights Code.
With respect to clubs in general and AP 207, the District recognizes, respects and honours, the diversity of the Vancouver community. Diversity enriches the lives of school communities and learners. The District is committed to promoting respect, understanding, and the celebration of our multiculturalism. The District supports experiences and learning activities for students which contribute to an understanding and appreciation of Canada's multicultural diversity. As outlined in Administrative Procedure 202, Multicultural Recognition the definition of multiculturalism is defined as including ethnic, racial, religious, spiritual, and cultural diversity. Therefore, faith-based clubs are approached in the same fashion as non-faith-based clubs.
All student clubs, including faith-based student clubs, are expected to operate in a manner that complies with the School Code of Conduct and Administrative Procedure 350, District Student Code of Conduct, as well as the School Act. Student clubs are extracurricular. They are student organized, meet outside of instructional hours, and are optional. No student should face pressure or coercion in any form to join or take part in any student club. The school cannot have teacher sponsorship of any club which would in any way lead to the perception that the school was favoring one faith or another. As with all student clubs, participation is expected to be open and inclusive; no student should be excluded.
In this way, a Humanist club, which existed to simply provide space to talk about Humanism, would be as permissible as the Catholic Club.
Vancouver is just one district though and policies vary widely across the province. The North Vancouver School District, for example, expressly prohibits "meetings of a partisan political or denominational religious nature."
Meetings of a partisan political or denominational religious nature may not be conducted as part of a curricular or extra-curricular activity for students. Meetings and displays of a partisan political or denominational religious nature conducted by community groups renting a School District facility shall be confined to areas to which the students do not, under normal circumstances, have access, or from which for the duration of such activities students have been excluded.
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