Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said the decision of whether to allow schools to distribute Bibles with parents' permission should be left to school trustees. ((Colin Perkel/Canadian Press))

Critics say Dalton McGuinty, Ontario's self-proclaimed "education premier," should be willing to take a stand on handing out Bibles to students in public schools.

"I think it was Bill Davis who once said the provincial government doesn't have to have an opinion on everything," said McGuinty, a Liberal premier, in a rare quote of a former Conservative premier.

The Waterloo Region public school board is seeking a legal opinion on its policy of allowing Gideons International, an evangelical Christian group, to give Bibles to students in Grade 5 whose parents have signed a permission slip.

The policy has raised concerns about distributing religious materials through the public school system. The Little Red Answer Book distributed by Gideons includes the New Testament and the Hebrew Bible books of proverbs and psalms, which critics say include proselytizing statements in violation of the board's policy.

Despite the ongoing debate, the premier refused to take a stand on the issue.

"This is the kind of thing that I would encourage the trustees who presumably were involved in this decision to make sure they're listening to parents, and not just parents, but folks in the broader community," said McGuinty. "Is this a practice with which they are comfortable? I leave that to them."

McGuinty, a Roman Catholic, wouldn't say if he was comfortable with Gideons giving Grade 5 kids Bibles to take home.

"I'm not going to weigh in on that, other than to say that I encourage the representatives of the school board there to make sure they give this careful consideration, listen to the population."

The premier and Education Minister Leona Dombrowsky had virtually the same response to the planned opening this fall of a school in Welland, Ont., for low-income children from across Ontario's Niagara region.

Niagara school board trustees should listen to the feedback, advised McGuinty.

"I have confidence in the community landing on some collective wisdom with respect to what is the best way forward for them," he said. "The fact that a lot of people are talking about it, I think is going to better inform the decision making of the trustees."

'It would be great to have some guidance'

With an election coming on Oct. 6, all political leaders should be willing to tell voters how they feel about these public education issues, said Annie Kidder of the parent group People for Education.

"It would be great to have some guidance and some notion of how do you feel about this," said Kidder.

"It doesn't have to be, 'what's the rule' or even 'what's the policy on something like Bibles for Grade 5 students,' but what's the opinion on it?"

The New Democrats also said McGuinty owes it to voters to offer an opinion on such key questions about education in Ontario.

"The buck stops with the premier, and for the premier not to accept that reality is a real betrayal of his responsibility when it comes to public education," said NDP critic Peter Kormos.

"The premier should make it very, very clear whether he supports that policy, whether he opposes it, whether it's being done with his enthusiastic acknowledgment or whether he has concerns about it. For him to duck the issue is irresponsible."