The Chilliwack school board heard from secularists, evangelical Christians, Gideons, Muslims and one high school student at a packed, standing-room-only board meeting Tuesday before voting to delete a regulation that endorsed the distribution of free Bibles at local public schools.
But that doesn't mean the Bibles are gone for good.
The board went on to direct staff to draft a new policy on the distribution of all materials to students at schools; and that policy (due by the end of March) may yet allow for the Gideons' annual Bible giveaway.
That worries local parent Richard Ajabu, who first sparked the Bible controversy last month after his daughter was given a glossy and colourful permission form for a free testament at her school.
Ajabu told trustees Tuesday he was concerned the Chilliwack district was headed in the same direction as School District No. 34, Abbotsford, where the Gideons continue to give away Bibles under a "distribution of materials" policy that doesn't specifically reference the protestant Christian organization.
"I'm concerned that SD33 may succumb to the same temptation," Ajabu told trustees.
He wants the new policy to ban the distribution religious materials explicitly and to reference Section 76 of the BC School Act, which states schools must be conducted on "strictly secular and non-sectarian principles."
That's unlikely based on comments from a number of trustees.
Although the board voted to delete Administrative Regulation 518, which endorsed the distribution of Gideon Youth Testaments to Grade 5 students with parental consent, several trustees pointed out they were doing so only because of a technicality.
Administrative regulations, which are developed by the superintendent and don't need board approval, normally exist only to "provide the detailed procedures" for implementing policies approved by the board, according to School District No. 33's policy manual.
For reasons that remain a mystery, the Gideons regulation was on the books without a policy to support.
"It's an odd duck," trustee Silvia Dyck said. "In order to do a proper job to serve this community on the distribution of materials in our schools, we need to delete this and write a proper policy that will cover this particular issue."Although that allowed trustees to dodge direct debate over Bibles in local schools until the end of March, most took the opportunity to express a position anyway.
"This board does not govern a private school for atheists," said trustee Barry Neufeld, who spoke in favour of letting all religious groups have equal opportunity to distribute materials. "There's an assumption that secular must exclude all religious opinions and overtones, but that's impossible. I can't check my faith at the door when I walk into the boardroom."
Trustee Doug McKay pointed out his decisions around the issue wouldn't be based on his personal beliefs about the Bible.
"What it's about is using the public schools and the public school system to distribute it," he said. "It's about the School Act. It's about the Canadian Charter of Rights"
Community members who packed the boardroom's public gallery, meanwhile, spoke passionately both for and against Bibles in local schools.
Henry Esau, a retired teacher and vice president of the local Gideons, called recent comments in the press about the Gideons a "blatant attack" on a "well-established and credible organization" that has a 100-year history of distributing free Bibles to hotels, hospitals, schools, prisons and civil institution in 193 countries around the world.
Another local Gideon, Peter Harder, took aim at the notion his organization's evangelical activities imply a lack of respect for other beliefs.
"The Gideons have a long record of working with other cultures," he said. "We do not trample over other cultures and religions."
Most who spoke in support of Bibles in schools favoured opening the distribution of materials in schools up to all religions equally.
"We have to be open to all these to understand and to live in the same society," said Muslim parent Mohamed Rehmtulla. "It's great if my son reads the Bible. It's great if my son reads the Koran."
Those who don't want their kids to receive religious materials can opt out.
"It's not hurting anyone to say no to a brochure," said Greg Balzer.
But Chilliwack Teachers' Association president Clint Johnston disagreed.
Clarifying first that he was speaking as "Clint Johnston, the parent," he said growing up in Chiliwack with prayer in schools he felt singled out for abstaining.
The Gideons' Bible distribution forces students into a similar position, he said.
"Each time that comes up there's got to be a public statement of belief made, and I think making children make that statement is not the best thing to do," he said.
Sardis secondary student Rachelle Graham agreed.
"I don't think it's fair to give a Bible to a 10-year-old kid and say here's the answer book, whether they can refuse it or not, whether their parents can refuse it or not," she said. "If you have questions about who you are and your religion, there's other places where those questions can be answered."
Martin Stuetz, a "concerned citizen," said the Gideons' activity should be stopped to protect freedom of religion.
"Freedom of religion only works if the government is neutral on the topic and that includes the public schools," he said.
Another community member, meanwhile, said the school board should be focusing on more important things.
"Gangs, guns, drugs, schoolyard violence are real issues," he said, "and I can't believe we're sitting here today discussing a red pamphlet that you got in the mail or that you got from your school kids....It's unbelievable."
School board chair Louise Piper, however, said the considerable time the district has spent on the matter is an indication officials don't take parent concerns lightly.
Now that Administrative Regulation 518 has been deleted, the distribution of Bibles at local schools will stop until the board hammers out a new policy, superintendent Evelyn Novak told the Times after the meeting.
Since the Gideons have already wrapped up their school Bible giveaway for this year, however, their activities won't be affected by the board's decisions until next fall.
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