Friday, October 23, 2009

Protest vs. high school

This article from the Owen Sound Sun Times was picked up by a number of media across the country earlier this week after Wiarton student Jennifer Rankin was kept isolated in her high school for participating in the Pro-Life Day of Solidarity.
Rankin believes the school principal violated her right of free expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“I felt very discriminated by it. I don’t think it was right at all what happened,” Rankin said.
School principal Pat Cavan confirmed the protest could not be allowed under school policy, which prevents any group from spreading one-sided information on any religious, political or other contentious subject.
“School property is not a public place,” Cavan said. “So while absolutely we support the right to free speech in a public space, that’s not school property."
“I understand that it is a public school and they’re concerned about everybody’s safety, but, you know, they have no problem doing a Gay Pride Day where everybody wears pink shirts,” (Sauble Christian Fellowship youth pastor Ken Holley) said. “I’ve been up there for poetry nights and I’ve seen the art work on the wall and it seems like if they call it art work or poetry they can say whatever they want and put whatever they want on the wall. I mean there’s nude pictures on the wall. My students have to go to school and deal with that, and as soon as they try to stand up for anything, it’s like, well, just be quiet, go home. I don’t think that’s right.”
Cavan said the annual Pride event at the school differs. It targets homophobia and supports an anti-discrimination view upheld in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
I actually support the board's views on this and the school's decision-- nor do I believe Rankin's rights were violated. It's always easy to forget when arguing Charter issues what Sec. 1 of it allows, that is the "rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits (my emphasis) prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society."
Rankin could have stayed home, she could have joined others, including her youth pastor, in a public space elsewhere. By its nature a public school system has to be secular, even in geographical areas where there is little to no diversity in culture and religion amongst the population.
As to the pink-shirt day... I'm not sure what Holley is really trying to say there. In many schools that have adopted this, it's an anti-bullying program to openly discuss homophobia and other discrimination that leads to bullying in high school environments.
I am always intrigued by these sorts of issues -- for example, the Gideons and the Grade 5 Bible distribution is another similar issue -- as a graduate of a Catholic school. Matters of Bible distribution and/or pro-life advocacy were never really an issue since the faith that underpinned the school had some pretty clear direction on those topics. It's always intriguing to see how a secular system based largely on white, Anglo-Saxon protestant values struggles to remain open to all when the vast majority of its population is still Christian. Would this sort of protest have even gained any traction at a high school in a larger, more diverse, more urban area? Likely not-- although it might surprise some to see how many allies this issue would have among the other faith communities.
To flip this sideways, would it be appropriate for teenaged Young Liberal Party of Canada members to setup a protest / display against the governing Conservative Party of Canada's policies? Many would agree that's a clear politicization of the public system that shouldn't take place.
Certainly, public and private, there are plenty of options for those who feel the public-board system is far too secular for their children's education. To consistently and fairly be open to all, the public system needs to enforce its secularity. At the end of the day, despite my own educational history, I strongly believe the only place for education in faith and spirituality is within the home and within the faith community, not in a publicly funded school system.


Anonymous said...

The only problem with your political spin on this ER is that our former Liberal MP was more pro-life than some social conservatives I know.

Would you say the same of a school board that brought in a politician to address students and parents and pay that person a speaking fee?(doesn't matter which party)

If we're going to wish a public school system that respects all views then that would include this young lady's views also.

How come it's ok for parents to storm Queens Park with bags on their heads and tape over their mouths and claim free speech when this girl's free speech is being penalized?

I'm not at all religious but throughout my public elementary years the first half-hour of class every day was Religion - Lord's Prayer, hymn singing, reading the Bible and religious lessons. Yes,
a public school. Do they still hand out Bibles? All three of my kids got them a few years ago.

Education Reporter said...

There's the point however-- you either have a secular public education system or you don't.

If this one-sided protest was permitted, then how is the public school not promoting Christianity?

You can't have a secular system where the numbers warrant and a protestant Christian system everywhere else, even if the majority of residents and students are Christian. I was astounded the public board handed out bibles to students in Grade 5 (usually a letter goes home to parents and those who wish their child to receive one return it and then the bibles are picked up on dismissal). Would they allow a Muslim group to hand out the Koran? Or Hindu or Sihk articles of faith? Well, in the case I'm most familiar with, they never received that request, but the point still stands. So you can't pretend to be a secular public system and then allow a religion to use your facilities as a distribution point for literature. That's what houses of faith and parents are for.

The MP did speak up today, the story was posted on Owen Sound's website. He's doing nothing but playing to his constituency, in an area that likely is very conservative (note the small c) and Christian. I live and work in a similar area and if my MP had been asked his answer would have been the same.

If the protest had been permitted and a repeat of last year had occurred where students were lashing out at each other and creating an incident that only inspired mistrust and anger, I'm sure we'd all be sitting here tsk-tsking the board for allowing it to happen.

In that community, it was a lose-lose situation for the board and someone would have been upset regardless.

RetDir said...

A long post I put here somehow got lost, so here's a shortened version of it. Abortion is a legitimate topic for debate in public schools, as a moral and not religious issue, and that's where it should have been placed. So is euthanasia (a topic of greater personal interest each passing year...!), and a whole range of other contentious social, political, and economic issues. Indeed, what constitutes legitimate protest would be a good topic for debate. When things become tricky in schools is how to deal with highly emotionally charged issues when the object isn't debate but indoctrination...York University may be the most conversant with this problem of any school.
B.C. is a province that has had more experience with this than most, but from a different perspective, largely related to what teachers are allowed to say in class about labour issues and what they are allowed to send home with their students. Worth taking a look at, as what they are allowed to do there would not be permitted in school boards in Ontario.
The issue of religion in public schools is quite a lot more difficult than banning it would presume. How does a school reflect its community if it doesn't reflect the religious plurality of the community? Many public schools in diverse communities provide areas for prayer - is that impermissible? How do you deal with religious clubs - a big issue in Hamilton a few years ago, but largely ignored in rural areas where I would bet they still exist...? Making schools uncomfortable for any religious expressions increases the chances that people will choose religiously based schools - madrassas are madrassas whether of Islamic, Christian, or any other religious bent - as a general rule I would think it is socially a good thing to minimize their numbers, not through legislation but through making public education reflective of the diversity of society.
Looking forward to ongoing discussion on this, as it is a huge subject with many grey areas...

Anonymous said...

At this issue's core is a young lady who was expressing her views in a country that prides itself on free speech.

Ask any one who has stood up against a popular idea, or has asked one too many intelligent questions of a system that sometimes likes to attach labels to individuals way too quickly rather than respect those differences of opinions.

I agree with Ret.Dir. in that if we don't create room for religious expression then a system bleeding students may loose many more.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps we harbour a nasty secret?
Maybe, despite our suggestions that Canadians/Ontarians are a tolerant people isn't true at all?

Perhaps we like to pay lip-service to being accepting and offering other cultures and religions opportunities and services but then resent it when their ways ripple into
our systems?