Jackson Doughart
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School boards should end proselytization

The Charlottetown Guardian, 03 February 2012

For the last 46 years, the Christian organization called the Gideons has given free copies of the Bible to Grade 5 students on Prince Edward Island. On Jan. 18, local and national media outlets reported that a parent whose daughter attends L.M. Montgomery Elementary School in Charlottetown complained to the Eastern School District after receiving an opt-out form, which allowed him to decide if she would be given a copy of the Christian holy text.

Despite the complaint, Eastern School District Superintendent Ricky Hood has stated that the school board will not undertake a review of the program, which does not interrupt instructional time and does not force students or their parents to accept the books. Further, he noted that any decision to keep or discontinue the initiative would be made by the home and school association in each individual school.

Notwithstanding the attempts of the school board to downplay the significance of the issue, the parent was right to complain about the initiative, which has no business in public education. However nonchalant schools are about the matter, their involvement implicates them in an obvious violation of secularism, the public policy doctrine best understood as the separation of church and state, which Mr. Hood should be more eager to rectify.

Secularism is a foundational principle of modern liberal democracy that guides the relationship between religion and government in all Western countries. It is imperative that state and religious institutions remain separate in order to protect both freedom of religion, an explicitly-guaranteed constitutional liberty, and freedom from religion, a subsidiary thereof which protects those who do not want to associate with the dominant faith of their community. More importantly, Canada's judiciary interprets religious freedom as an individually-determined right, meaning that any attempt to make decisions regarding matters of faith for others is an illegitimate exercise of religious freedom.

Passing out free Bibles does not violate anyone's religious freedom, but doing so in public schools involves government endorsement of one faith group over others. State institutions, while often reflective of the dominant or majority groups within society, represent the entire population, whose citizenship is not in any way qualified by religious allegiance. By compromising its neutrality in religious matters, the government acts inconsistently with this maxim of secular citizenship.

It is also important to remember that P.E.I.'s religious makeup was much more homogenous when the program was introduced, with most residents belonging to either Catholic or Protestant congregations. Today, one can expect that classrooms will include children whose parents subscribe to a variety of belief systems, and unless schools are prepared to open their doors to these ideas as well, the privilege enjoyed by the Gideons is not justifiable.

Contrary to popular belief, the practice of secularism does not entail a prohibition on the expression of one's faith in public and should not be used to prevent discussions about religion in schools. The availability of religious texts as reference materials in school libraries is also wholly consistent with an open and studious educational environment. In fact, I go a step beyond most secularists in believing that high-school students should receive some training in the Bible, not for religious purposes but for literary ones, as a knowledge of the book is necessary to understanding scriptural allusions in English literature. One simply cannot expect to properly read Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Lewis, or Donne, among a multitude of others, without first being taught the basics of Christian scripture.

Yet the initiative of the Gideons is not consistent with any such educational objectives. Here we have a religious organization, not indigenous to our province but rather international and overt in its dissemination of Protestant Christianity, using public schools to propagate religious literature. This is nothing more than an underhanded way of proselytizing to children, which educational officials are perfectly willing to go along with.

Anyone who uses the opt-out form as a justification for the program fails to understand the meaning of an institutional separation of religion and government. It is not the role of state institutions, especially schools, to provide access to religion and then to ask if this access is desired. Moreover, sending home an opt-out form with students is not an adequate gauge of parental permission; many of the forms will not make it to parents, and some people who would otherwise opt out of the program will doubtless participate for fear of alienating their children. Thus, the only appropriate response by school board officials is to refuse any involvement in the initiative, leaving the group to conduct its efforts elsewhere.

There is also something about the targeting of schools that should immediately arouse one's suspicions about the Gideons. The organization knows that most children being raised by Christian parents will already have access to The Bible at home or in church, leaving the rest of the children to receive the "good news." Spreading the faith is only necessary for people who don't already share it, and while the group is well within its right to promote its world view, using schools as a platform takes advantage of children, who are usually not mature enough to make informed judgments on such matters. Any challenges to the ideas of students should result from the rigors of study and class participation, not from external special-interest groups.

In his interview with The Guardian on Jan. 19, Mr. Hood compared the Gideons' program to that of other community organizations that promote their activities through schools. This is misleading, as community programs for children, though potentially affiliated in some way with a church or faith group, are not principally concerned with the advocacy of religious texts or ideas. I doubt that school board officials would be indifferent about the use of their facilities to challenge Christianity, so why should they take an interest in advancing it?

While the Gideons' program may well have existed for a long time, the effects of secularization should cause us to question the promotion of religion to schoolchildren. The best way to deal with this problem is to immediately end the initiative and to allow the Gideons to spread their faith outside of public schools.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com