Ontario tribunal bans Bible distribution unless school board also gives out atheist texts
TORONTO, September 11, 2013 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has ruled that the District School Board of Niagara cannot hand out Bibles unless the school board revises its policies to facilitate the distribution of atheistic texts.
"If it [the school board] is prepared to distribute permission forms proposing the distribution of Christian texts to committed atheists, it must also be prepared to distribute permission forms proposing the distribution of atheist texts to religious Christians," wrote David Wright, associate chair of the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, in a decision handed down on August 13.
"It cannot design its criteria in a way that would permit communication of materials setting out their beliefs by some, but not all creeds," Wright wrote.
In the case of R.C. versus District School Board of Niagara the Human Rights Tribunal found that atheism is a "creed" that has religious protection equal to that of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and other religions, and declared that the board was guilty of discrimination under the Human Rights Code for not allowing the “creed” of atheism to be equally available to its students.
“Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity,” wrote Wright. "The belief that there is no deity, superhuman or controlling power is equally connected to ‘spiritual faith, self-definition and spiritual fulfilment’ as a belief that one exists."
The ruling stems from a complaint by a Niagara region parent who objected to the availability of Gideon Bibles at his daughter’s school.
In 2010 Rene Chouinard took issue with the District School Board of Niagara (DSBN) when his fifth grade daughter brought home a slip which would allow the Gideons to give the girl a Bible, with parental permission.
The Gideons are an evangelical Protestant association based in Nashville, Tennessee. They have been placing Bibles containing the New Testament plus the Psalms and Proverbs from the Old Testament in Canadian public schools since 1936. Gideon Bibles have been made available in the District School Board of Niagara schools since 1964.
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Chouinard, a self-professed secular humanist, challenged the board’s policy of allowing Christian material to be given to students by demanding that he be allowed to distribute two humanist books titled “Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children” and “Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist” to the Grade 5 students of Nelles Public School in Grimsby, where his children attended.
Chouinard told media at the time that his intent was not to actually give the books to students, but to provoke a situation where the board would be forced to censure the Gideon bibles.
In response to Chouinard’s demand, in March 2010 the DSBN amended its policy regarding the distribution of religious materials by inviting other religions to offer religious books to students, with the approval of the education director, principals and parent groups, and with the permission of the child’s parents.
Chouinard applied to have his secular humanist material given to students under the new policy. However, his application was rejected because his tracts did not fall within the definition of religious texts as outlined by the Ontario Multifaith Information Manual (MIM), an “authoritative guide for the management of religious diversity issues” that was consulted by the Niagara school officials to determine if Chouinard's books were acceptable.
The Ontario Multifaith Information Manual covers everything from Bahá’í to Zoroastrianism, addressing such issues as basic beliefs, sources of prayers and scriptures, and even dietary requirements, but does not include atheism or secular humanism.
In his ruling, Wright said that the Niagara Board's policy of allowing only texts considered acceptable by the Ontario Multifaith Information Manual to be distributed to students was discriminatory. His order states that if the school board wants to continue to allow the distribution of Gideon bibles, it has six months to produce and submit a new policy.
In an interview with LifeSiteNews, theologian John Paul Meenan, Associate Professor of Theology at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Academy, a Catholic college in Barry's Bay, Ontario, argued that there is an inherent contradiction in the Human Rights Tribunal ruling that atheism is equivalent to a religion with a creed that has its foundation in a belief in God.
"First, one must define one’s terms," Meenan said. "What is meant by a ‘creed’? A creed is a system of beliefs, by which one directs one’s actions and one’s life, the metaphysical foundation for one’s existence."
"Atheism, by definition, is a ‘creed’ only in the negative sense," Meenan explained. "The very term implies that it does not believe in a ‘God’, or any deity. Well then, what do they believe?"
"One must define one’s religion affirmatively, through some sort of creed, for it to be protected," Meenan argued. "All of the religions listed in the MIM in the HRC ruling have such a creed. There is a clear idea of what their religion teaches. I think that by asking the ‘atheists’ to define explicitly what they do believe, their support may dwindle. After all, not many can stand up, and live by, the tenets of stark atheism. Without God, there is no basis for love, or hope, or religion in any meaningful sense."
"After all," Meenan said, "the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which the Human Rights Tribunal uses as its guiding document, states in the very preamble that 'Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law'."
Noting that "there is an underlying issue with the role of the State in education," Meenan said that if "Mr. Chouinard wants to indoctrinate his daughter in atheism, well, go ahead. But not at school, and not other people’s children."
"Up until the modern age, we have all more or less agreed on what an education should look like, but that is now unravelling. This HRC decision is just one more disintegration in the common foundation of our society," Professor Meenan concluded.
The full text of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal decision is available here.