Christmas comes early for atheist family who opposed holiday symbols in the classroom

An atheist family whose child was not allowed to re-enrol in preschool after her parents fought against classroom Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations has been awarded $12,000 by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal.

The case wasn't about whether the school should be allowed to display Christmas ornaments or dreidels, or if teachers can discuss religion and holy days with their young charges. Instead, it was about the school's response to the parents' complaints — a response the tribunal described as discrimination.

The dispute began when Gary Mangel and Mai Yasué, two outspoken atheists, were told their daughter would not be allowed to continue to attend Bowen Island Montessori School (BIMS) unless they signed an agreement confirming their "understanding and acceptance" of all aspects of the school's cultural program.

"At its core, it is about a letter which held [a child]'s registration hostage to a demand," tribunal member Barbara Korenkiewicz wrote in her Tuesday decision on the case.

According to the decision, the events that led to that letter included emotional confrontations, "veiled" Islamophobia and even a mock Nazi salute.

'No discussion of Santa Claus'

Mangel and Yasué's three-year-old was attending BIMS in 2014 when they heard about the school's plans for the month of December, which included decorating elf ornaments and potentially also lighting candles on a menorah.

Mangel, who was on the board of directors for the school, wrote an email to other members saying it wasn't appropriate for preschoolers to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or any other "religious/political event" — including, he said, Remembrance Day.

"I certainly hope that there will be no discussion of Santa Claus at BIMS. I am absolutely against anyone blatantly lying to my daughter," Mangel wrote.


Over the next few months, the dispute snowballed as the couple exchanged colourful and occasionally testy emails with the school's board and had tense meetings with staff about the religious and cultural content of the curriculum. They also objected to celebrations of Easter and Valentine's Day, holidays they believe have become too tied up in materialism and consumerism.

The standoff reached a climax in June 2015, when the school asked Mangel and Yasué to sign off on their acceptance of the curriculum, which emphasizes multiculturalism. When they refused, the little girl wasn't allowed to return to school in the fall, according to the decision.

That demand amounted to discrimination on the basis of race, ancestry and religion, Korenkiewicz said.

"I find nothing in the evidence that could justify the refusal to register [the child] unless Dr. Yasué and Mr. Mangel essentially agreed that they would be significantly limited in their ability to raise issues about the cultural aspects of the BIMS program," Korenkiewicz wrote.

She said the school should pay the child $2,000 and the parents $5,000 each as compensation for the discrimination.

Unacceptable behaviour

That's despite some conduct by Mangel that strayed "beyond the acceptable," in Korenkiewicz's words.

For instance, when Mangel learned the school planned to include clay elf decorations in its December festivities, he wrote an email to the board objecting, and suggested some "atheist Christmas ornaments" that would better represent the views of his family.

That included one that simply says "Skeptic," and another that depicted the World Trade Center in New York with the caption "Atheists don't fly airplanes into buildings."

The latter, according to Korenkiewicz, was nothing more than "a veiled form of Islamophobia."

Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images
Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

The tribunal also heard about an uncomfortable conversation Mangel had with the husband of a BIMS administrator. They were discussing the use of religious symbols at the school when the husband pointed out that children in public schools still sing the national anthem even though it includes the word "God."

"Mangel responded, 'I'll sue them too' and then began doing the Nazi salute and marching around while he sung a different version of O Canada," Korenkiewicz wrote.

Mangel told the tribunal he understood he was being politically incorrect but the display was meant to be a "preposterous analogy."

School board president Maria Turnbull described the $12,000 award to the family as a "meaningful sum," and said BIMS officials will need to examine how they can pay it.

She told CBC News: "What the decision provides is a level of certainty that is valued by the school, and we look forward to getting 100 per cent back to our focus on the young people."