Religion in public schools under scrutiny
Winnipeg School Board questions parents’ right to Bible studies in school
WINNIPEG, MB—A petition to bring after-hours Bible study into a Winnipeg school has reopened the debate on religion and public education.
“It comes up in some form every couple of years,” Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF) national director Jerry Hanson explains, when someone urges the government to change the wording of the Public Schools Act. Some would like to see the Act amended it to give school boards the power to allow or bar religious groups from holding meetings on campus regardless of whether parents request the religious services.
Established in 1938, CEF Manitoba’s mission is to disciple boys and girls through Bible teaching. However, this year the school board denied its petition to provide Bible studies and prayer at Greenwood School in the Winnipeg School Division (WSD).
The board says the rejection is due to technicalities, including the fact that the petition didn’t begin with an address to the Winnipeg School Division. Some trustees say the petition simply needs to be updated, but at least one is taking the opportunity to recommend removing all religion in the public school division.
Although she did not respond to calls from ChristianWeek, board member Lisa Naylor told the Winnipeg Free Press she would not support any religious activities in schools.
“It’s time to review the entire part [of the Public Schools Act] that has to do with religion in the schools,” Naylor told the Free Press. “We’re not going to be mandated to have religion in our schools.”
Naylor also claims the CEF funds anti-homosexual organizations and the CEF curriculum teaches against the gay and lesbian lifestyle.
Hanson says CEF has never funded such organizations, and the CEF’s Bible studies do not address homosexuality.
Some have suggested CEF’s challenges border on discrimination and harassment. Hanson says even as they continue to work with the school division to revise the petition, it may be a tactic to frustrate CEF into giving up under a mountain of red tape.
“We’re not sure where [the WSD] are getting these things,” Hanson says, but adds CEF won’t resort to their level.
“We’re trying to do this in a Christ-like way,” Hanson says. “We’re going to honour God to see this mission go forward.”
Long-time WSD board member Mike Babinsky is siding with CEF, despite his colleague’s concerns.
A WSD trustee for 23 years, he has seen the annual CEF petition come through many times. There have often been roadblocks, though he says this school board is different. Six out of the nine trustees are newly elected; another two have served only a handful of years.
Babinsky says he disagreed with the board’s concerns over the petition that it doesn’t begin with an address to the WSD, something he considers a relatively minor detail.
“It clearly identifies [CEF’s] desire to petition for religious instruction,” Babinsky says. “It’s a process conducted for decades, and accepted for a long time.”
Babinsky says he argued for the board to let it go for first reading, and allow CEF to fix the petition for next reading.
“If there is an error, let’s not slam the door,” Babinsky says, noting the Bible studies are conducted during off hours and have never caused any problems for the school or school board.
“I said this is wrong, it’s in the Public Schools Act, it’s not up to us to say this is not okay,” Babinsky says. The board is not only denying parents their religious rights protected by the School Act, he says, but the rights protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“And a new energetic school board, with only a few months of experience, has decided to challenge this,” Babinsky says.
The Public Schools Act states that if a school receives enough signed petitions from parents for religious studies, the school board shall pass a by-law allowing the optional lessons by an approved member of the clergy.
It says “shall” pass the by-law, rather than “may,” Babinsky explains, and that’s the change trustee Lisa Naylor would like to see.
Naylor planned to give a notice of motion April 13, and will present her motion on May 4, Babinsky says. He suggests it could be a form of lobbying to change the Public Schools Act.
CEF will continue talking with the school board to sort out the petition requirements, though Hanson says talking with the Education Minister may be required down the line. Until then, he invites parents to write letters expressing their support for CEF and the right to choose Christian discipleship in school.
“We do not coerce parents, they are free to sign if they want religious education,” Hanson says. “Parents have access to what’s being taught; we share very openly with parents.”
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