B.C. school boards have more wiggle room for giving out free Bibles than for passing deficit budgets, according to a Ministry of Education letter sent to Chilliwack parent Richard Ajabu last week.
Ajabu set off heated debate in October when he complained about a School District No. 33 regulation that allowed Gideons International (an evangelical Christian organization) to hand out free Bibles at local public schools.
He has twice written the education minister to intervene to stop the giveaway, saying it violates Section 76 of the B.C. School Act, which states all schools "must be conducted on strictly secular and nonsectarian principles."
He has been told locally elected school boards have broad authority to establish policies for the operation of schools in their districts and that it's up to the courts to rule on disagreements where they exist.
Ajabu pointed out that the minister stepped in quickly to fire the Cowichan Valley school board in July when it violated the School Act by passing a deficit budget.
But that case was more clear cut, according a Jan. 22 letter written to Ajabu on Education Minister Don McRae's behalf by senior legislative analyst Karen Loughran.
"There was a clear violation of the Act," she wrote of the Cowichan Valley case. "The board of education was required under the legislation to submit a balanced budget, it refused to do so . . . ."
Religion in public schools is less cut and dry, she said.
"In the case of section 76," wrote Loughran, "while it is clear that schools cannot pick a religion and teach it to students as truth, there are a whole range of other instances where it is unclear whether a particular activity would contravene section 76, such as the singing of Christmas carols or the rental of school space to a religious organization. Reasonable people can
disagree about whether these activities are compatible with Section 76, and it is up to the courts to make that determination."
In November, the Chilliwack school board deleted a regulation that specifically endorsed the Gideons' activity in Chilliwack, and a draft of a new "distribution of materials" policy-which could still allow for Bibles in schools- is due back to the board before the end of March.
Ajabu isn't the only one worried about the new policy.
The BC Humanist Association, a 200member organization of atheists, agnostics and other free thinkers, has launched a petition aimed at preventing what it calls "an attempt to use public schools for religious proselytizing."
"I fear that this new policy will be used to reinstate the distribution of Gideon Bibles, a practice that I feel violates Section 76 of the BC School Act...," reads the petition directed at superintendent Evelyn Novak and Chilliwack school trustees. "Furthermore, I feel that it is an inappropriate use of school resources to enable religious organizations to proselytize to students."
The online petition had 82 supporters at press time Wednesday, and BC Humanist Association executive director Ian Bushfield said his organization will collect signatures online and in print through February before presenting to the superintendent.