Manitoba·Opinion

Re-writing Winnipeg School Division religious instruction bylaw an insult to parents

Winnipeg School Division trustees passed a motion to request a change to the Public Schools Act regarding religious instruction in schools last month. Sonya Braun says changing the wording in the bill infringes on parents' rights.
Sonya Braun says changing wording in a section of the Public Schools Act, the Winnipeg School Division is imposing a world-view on parents and students without letting them have a say. (Shutterstock)

It's been a month since Winnipeg School Division trustees passed a motion to request a change to the Public Schools Act regarding religious instruction in schools.

The trustees want a single word altered in Section 80.  The section currently says: "If a petition requesting that religious instruction be given in a school is presented to the school board and is signed by the parents or guardians of at least 25 children, the school board shall pass a bylaw authorizing instruction in religion in compliance with the petition."

The change would re-word it to say "the school board may pass a bylaw."  

Now that the dust has settled, I hope parents aren't forgetting about it. I hope parents realize changing that one word from "shall" to "may" is actually a strike against parents, not the religious organization doing the teaching.

When seven of nine trustees decide they need the power to take away the choice of over 25 parents, we have a problem. They say they need to save parents and students from dangerous religious groups who might coerce them unknowingly.

Child Evangelism Fellowship  

In reality, the specific group they're honing in on, Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), is already hyper-governed. They are not allowed to proselytize or recruit. They follow the strictest of guidelines to ensure absolute transparency and trust with parents and the school (which is why there are no complaints about CEF from the school). 

CEF is already well-controlled. The trustees are taking away parents' freedom to choose.

Some people argue that religion doesn't belong in public schools and therefore no religious instruction should take place on school grounds. The Public Schools Act does declare public schools to be non-sectarian.  

However, in 1896, a concession was made for the dwindling Catholic population to have religious instruction after the dual funding system for Catholic and Protestant schools was abolished and a non-denominational school system began. It was called "The Laurier-Greenway Compromise."

From that time on, parents have had the option to request religious instruction outside of class time, even if they are a minority. Members of the board say this is an outdated law that needs to be updated.

Tolerance for diversity

I say it is a beautiful example of tolerance for diversity and should remain the same.

Some trustees say that school division values are being crossed by CEF, citing LGBT values and evolution. I often wonder how these values became school division values. Did they poll their wards or survey parents?  

The fact is, the public in public schools have little say, beyond voting in trustees about whom they know very little. We've been brainwashed to think public schools equal secular schools, when in truth, public schools should reflect the diversity of the greater population (the public), not just a small segment of the population.  

Non-sectarian applies here, too. In a recent Angus Reid Institute poll, 26 per cent of Canadians were noted as inclined to reject religion, 30 per cent inclined to embrace religion, and 44 per cent somewhere in between. Public schools should allow for that mix. 

If secular values are the only criteria for evaluating the requests of parents, that's a problem.

School division values

The board is not only worried about CEF holding different values, they want to stop any discussion that goes against "school division" values. 

Trustee Lisa Naylor asked: "How do we allow discussion to go on in our schools that goes against our own values?" Schools need to allow more voices, especially ones that parents have approved, to speak into kids' lives.  

Does the school system want to equip every unique child to become a thinking and contributing member of the community and global citizen, or do they want to make clones? The skills of logic, critical thinking, and analysis have been long-neglected in our schools. These skills allow kids to make better choices, and help keep them safe.

Giving kids these tools is more important than trying to control their beliefs (and it's more respectful of their diversity and intelligence). Perhaps the school board should put its energy into developing these areas instead of re-writing laws and taking power away from parents.

The minister of education and the province need to respect the beliefs and requests of parents. The WSD trustees are clearly over-stepping the boundaries of their mandate by asking for veto power over parents who have different values from them. 

If parents request religious instruction for their children outside of class time in compliance with the law, and every child attends only with their parents' full knowledge and consent, what right does a board of trustees have to say, "No"?  

The Public Schools Act, as it stands, carries a beautiful legacy of honouring parents' values, regardless of whether they are held by the majority or not. As parents, we need to stand together to ensure this legacy carries on.

Sonya Braun is a mother of three in the North End who enjoys singing, writing and speaking.

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