B.C. atheist group seeks end to Bible distribution in schools

Daily Brew

[Abbotsford School District/Facebook]

A group of atheists in British Columbia is gearing up for a fight with the Abbotsford School District to end the distribution of religious materials in schools. Barring that, the group is asking to be allowed to distribute copies of a skepticism-themed comic with titles including “No thinking allowed?” and “Are you scared of hell?.”

The B.C. Humanist Association — which in 2012 supported a local father in successfully arguing against the distribution of Bibles in schools in the Chilliwack School District — issued a news release on Wednesday that called on the superintendent of the Abbotsford School District to stop handing out Gideon Bibles to children in Grade 5.

“We’d been aware that religious materials were being distributed in Abbotsford schools since we did a survey of school board policies across B.C. a few years ago,” B.C. Humanist executive director Ian Bushfield told Yahoo Canada News.

“At the time we were working with the Chilliwack School District to end the distribution of Gideon Bibles there, following a parent’s complaint. We’ve come back to Abbotsford now as our partnership with Godless Comics has afforded us the opportunity to directly challenge the policy — that is, either the district stops distributing Gideon Bibles or they permit these comics to be distributed as well.”

The Gideons International, based in Nashville, Tenn., has been placing Bibles in public schools in Canada since 1936. After parents in some school districts began complaining about in-class proselytization, school boards switched to permission forms handed out to students prior to March Break and many banned the practice altogether.

Bushfield believes Abbotsford may be the last B.C. school board to hand out the permission forms and distribute religious texts.

However, Dave Stephens, Abbotsford School District’s communications manager, told Yahoo Canada News in an email that the last distribution of the Gideon Bible was in Fall 2014.

“There has been no request since then. To be clear, the Gideons have been the only organization to request such distribution.”

When asked if the school board would reconsider allowing the Gideons to distribute materials, Stephens said the board would consider Bushfield’s request in due time.

“There may be a decision, as a result of the request, to review the district administrative procedure regarding distribution of materials in schools, but that is yet to be determined,” he added.

Other battles

Since 2011, there have been five high-profile battles between parents concerned about religious indoctrination and school boards unwilling or under pressure to continue the tradition of distributing Gideon Bibles.

In June 2011, a long and drawn-out battle that began in 2007 saw the Waterloo Region District School Board ban the distribution of Gideon Bibles on the advice of a lawyer, a move that garnered the school board criticism and complaints.

In late November of that same year, Iqaluit, Nunavut, banned religious organizations from distributing their material on school property. Members of the Nunavut District Education Authority said the issue for them came into focus after Arviat District Education Authority granted permission to the Gideons to hand out Bibles in its three schools.

In Ontario, after months of debate on the issue, in March 2012 the Bluewater District School Board voted to ban the distribution of religious materials in all of its 53 schools. The decision was made despite vocal and organized opposition.

“It is an atheist thing and they’re doing harm to the children,” Hanover, Ont., resident Dorothy Adams told a reporter from The Canadian Press at the time.

A year later, in August 2013, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario (HRTO) sided against the practice of distributing Gideon Bibles in schools after an atheist father took on the District School Board of Niagara.

The father, known as R.C. in the tribunal’s decision, brought the case to the human rights arbitrator after contacting the school principal and asking to distribute another book, Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children. When that request was denied on the basis that atheism is not a creed, R.C. brought the district before the HRTO.

“Allowing only the Gideons, a Christian group, to distribute religious literature in the board’s schools under the version of the policy in place when S.C. [R.C.’s daughter] was in Grade 5 discriminated against the applicants,” HRTO associate chairman David Wright wrote in the decision.

And while Gideon Bibles are no longer being distributed to children in the Chilliwack School District, copies are still available to any student who asks, according to superintendent of schools at Chilliwack School District #33, Evelyn Novak.

In an email to Yahoo Canada News, she confirmed that schools in her district do not distribute Bibles but do make them available to students who want them.

“If parents wish to have the Bibles, they complete the request form, and parents then can subsequently pick up the Bibles at the school,” she wrote. The school board’s official policy only states that any material distributed in schools must be “in the best interest of students.”

According to Bushfield, if the Abbotsford School District doesn’t respond to his letter and amend school policy, his organization will push the issue further.

“If the district continues to privilege the distribution of Bibles while refusing any other materials, we’ll look to challenge the constitutionality and legality of their policy,” he wrote. 

“In our letter to the superintendent we set out the precedents that show that Canada is a secular country and our public institutions ought to respect that.”