Monday, March 1, 2010

Gideon heritage waning?

Caught this item towards the end of this past week, from the Monique Beech at the St. Catharines Standard on the use of schools to distribute New Testament Bibles by the Gideons.
Right off the bat, this whole bible distribution is a very foreign concept to me-- someone writing this as a graduate of a Catholic school system (where distribution of the bible was surprisingly not an issue-- there was a complete set in every classroom) since converted to a one-public-school-system supporter. I have to say I agree with Paolo Miele (sometime commenter in these pages) when he states a public, secular school system -- particularly in more diverse urban areas -- should provide no space for the promotion of theology within its walls. Be it through sanctioned co-curricular activities or allowing the use of schools to distribute religious texts.
... a revamped District School Board of Niagara policy will not allow any kind of religious book or pamphlet to be distributed through schools to students, barring the approval of the director of education, school principals and parent groups. The materials would not be used for classroom teaching, but for personal use.
The old board rule, which dated back to 1998, granted permission only to Gideons International in Canada to offer New Testaments to Grade 5 pupils who wished to have them in schools — if principals and parents agreed. About half of the board's 97 schools offered bibles to students. But Miele said any kind of religious item does not belong in a public school.
"There should be no religious materials from different religious groups even making requests to the board," said Miele, who has been critical of the board on other issues, including the closure of Niagara District Secondary School and ongoing support of Christian-focused Eden High School, which is part of the DSBN. 
This is one of those situations where to be inclusive of all faith communities it's perhaps better, easier and fairer to all to simply exclude all faith communities. I'm not saying get rid of world religions as a senior-level course-- it was one of the most useful credits I was forced to take in high school (many Catholic boards require this credit as one of the annual religious education credits). That credit allows a valuable opportunity to learn about other faiths. This is a distinctly different situation than allowing faiths to use the school to promote or serve their own faith communities.
This half-and-half policy -- yes we allow, but it's at the judgment of people who might say no -- is poor. There are many public boards across Ontario that have similar ones. If the employee charged with the decision doesn't want to raise the ire of a particular faith group, then s/he has to permit all to do what the Gideons have traditionally done. When that happens it becomes a fairly meaningless policy.
The easier way to do it would simply be either to tell faith communities they will have to find other means to distribute their texts and promote their faiths, or to tell them they are permitted to distribute upon working out the logistical details with the school principal of how and when the distribution will occur outside of instructional time.
That said, I am well aware of the reality on the ground. My own county of 100,000+ population just got its first mosque-- and it runs out of a church (very a la Little Mosque). That's a very different reality than London, or Windsor, or K-W or the GTA. Such a, er, homogenous faith profile in a community like mine means many don't twist themselves into pretzels when the Gideon letter arrives home offering bibles to Grade 5 students.
However-- if we are to have a truly secular, public education system, then faiths should do this sacred-text distribution exclusively through their houses of worship.


Anonymous said...

Very good points ER - perhaps all religious texts should be subject to review by board committees on the basis of equity and inclusivity - that would guarantee they would not be present in publicly funded systems, which is probably why I understand Catholic boards are looking for constitutional reasons that they will not be bound by the legislation, regs, and the HRC on this issue - since their religious practices regularly violate the rights of women?

Education Reporter said...

Anon March 1 22:25
Don't think a committee would get it right either. It's all or none, as far as I'm concerned. Either open the floodgates and allow all to distribute through schools outside of instructional hours or allow none.

A world of half-and-half or decision by committee is only opening itself up to the EXACT protest taking place in the DSBN right now (after this was posted).

Part of me doesn't understand why they need or want the schools to do it. Use the very houses of faith where you would ask the faithful to gather as a community as the distribution point. Or, setup your own faith-based school and then do it through that school.

Not wanting to open a can of worms here, but I'm not familiar with the reference you make to Catholic school boards, human rights commissions and the Catholic faith regularly violating women's rights.


RetDir said...

Where boards get hung up on this one is when they exist in fairly conservative, faith-based communities, and therefore wish to reflect their community in the practices of the school. Some boards refuse to distribute any religious texts (which would be my preferred route) and others allow them on request from the parent. Of course, where there is a large Islamic student population areas are often set aside for I don't think this is a black and white issue, with no religious elements in public schools. Not allowing a practice such as this would effectively shut this population out of the public school system. Another good example of a grey area on this one is religious 'clubs', often held at lunch time or after school, which are faith based. This practice likely continues in many areas of the province, but HWDSB got into a lot of hot water over it a few years back.

Anonymous said...

We just sent the Bibles back to the school with a note of "Not Thanks"

A little common sense goes a long way. Perhaps making it clear that students(and parents) have that option would be the answer in those regions of the province that still insist on handing the Gideon's out?


Anonymous said...

make that "no thanks" - trying to cut down on coffee and see what happens?