Debate over Bibles in school flares in Ontario

The decades-old routine of handing out free Gideon Bibles in public schools sparks renewed passions amid complaints the practice is discriminatory and no longer has a place in a secular education system.

The decades-old routine of handing out free Gideon Bibles in public schools has sparked renewed passions amid complaints the practice is discriminatory and no longer has a place in a secular education system.

The latest flare-up occurred in the sprawling Bluewater District School Board in southern Ontario after a parent's objection led to the discovery the board had no policy on the issue.

Word that Bluewater officials were reviewing the practice in order to come up with a policy provoked a torrent of support for continuing the tradition.

"I'm not even a Gideon. I'm just a concerned Christian parent in a country that's still 70 per cent Christian," said Rev. Mark Koehler, pastor at First St. Matthews Lutheran Church in Hanover, Ont.

"We've taken prayer out of school. We can't say certain greetings at Christmas time. We don't want further erosion of our Christian faith and heritage to happen."

As with many other schools, parents of Grade 5 students at the Bluewater board receive a permission slip for the school to give their children a Gideon Bible.

Most of those who jammed a recent school board committee meeting clutched Gideon Bibles and advocated for their continued distribution.

One father, however, spoke against it, saying he was surprised to discover the practice was still in place in the secular school system.

Jan Johnstone, chairwoman of the Bluewater District School Board, said the review has sparked a "lot of comment."

The board will either end up banning distribution of non-instructional religious materials, she said, or devise an inclusive policy that complies with the Education Act, human rights codes and the charter.

The latter option is tricky, she admitted.   

"There are things that may be said in these texts that are a problem," Johnstone said.

The Bluewater debate comes after Iqaluit banned distributing religious material on school property last month.

Another district set precedent in the territory by allowing the handouts.

While the Bibles — comprising a New Testament plus the books of Psalms and Proverbs from the Old Testament — may be new in Nunavut schools, they're a well-worn tradition elsewhere.

Students 'extremely impressionable'

Gideons International has been placing them in Canadian public schools since 1936.

The evangelical Protestant association based in Nashville, Tenn., is clear about why it hands out the free Bibles.

"Students that are between the ages of 10 and 18 are extremely impressionable," the organization states.

"Even if they read the scripture to kill free time between classes, their thoughts will be impressed with Jesus Christ rather than with thoughts of negative, unconstructive influences of the world that surround them today."

Rene Chouinard and his wife — atheists from Grimsby, Ont. — are awaiting a human rights hearing expected in March on their complaint against the Niagara school board.

After the parents of three complained, the board changed its policy to allow other religious groups to distribute material as well, but refused to allow him to hand out "non-belief" writings, he said.

"It's a hangover from an earlier time," Chouinard said of the Bible handout.

"The smaller communities where there is not much in the line of diversity are still doing it. Any community where there is diversity has been forced to stop already and just has the common sense not to do it."

Several of Ontario's largest school boards, such as those in Toronto and York Region, have long discontinued the practice.

Changing realities

Catherine Fife, president of the association which speaks for 31 public boards in Ontario, said other districts are just catching up to changing realities.

"We're well into the 21st century, and so we have to truly be honest about the demographics of the students that we're serving," Fife said.

"They're not predominantly Christian any more."

Fife's own board in Waterloo Region went through a bruising four-year battle over Gideon Bibles that ultimately ended with an overall ban, effective this year, on the advice of a lawyer.

"The legal opinion for us proved to be a tipping point," Fife said.

"We were delving into a practice that could be seen as inequitable."

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has washed his hands of the issue, saying it's up to trustees to come up with their own solutions.

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association has called the distribution of bibles "problematic" because it implies that Christianity is endorsed by the school board.