B.C. appeal ruling seen as crucial victory
for parental authority, religious freedom
By Ted Gerk
School Board chair Heather Stilwell is confident that the recent battle over books is over. She’s comfortable talking about the agenda she says took precedence over common sense, when pro-homosexual activists challenged the rights of parents to make decisions affecting their children’s learning environment.
“They wanted it all – they went for the whole ball of wax” she exclaims. “Why else would they start with a kindergarten class?”
It all started in April of 1997, when kindergarten teacher James Chamberlain attempted to introduce into the classroom three children’s books that featured same-sex parents. The Surrey School Board balked at the request, and in August of that same year, Chamberlain filed a suit in British Columbia Supreme Court.
Controversial Supreme Court Justice Mary Saunders ruled in December of 1998, that the board violated the B.C. School Act’s prohibition on religion in schools, by opposing the books on the basis of religious belief. In January of 1999, the school board appealed the ruling. The case was heard in June of this year and decided on September 20, 2000 – clearly exonerating the Surrey School Board.
“The Saunders decision was extremely dangerous, and would have seen the disruption of the public school system – not just in Surrey, not just in British Columbia, but throughout Canada”, added Stilwell.
Stilwell feels vindicated on her largest fear. “There is and always will be a place for religious beliefs in the school system. As an institution, school districts and their staff are constantly allowing the influence of religious belief to influence their decisions the Jehovah’s Witness is accommodated in their refusal to salute the flag, Sikh and Hindu people are allowed time off to celebrate their holidays, Jewish people have the right to their days of remembrance. It is some elements of the media and the provincial government who are out of touch with reality and the wishes of the community, not the Surrey School Board.”
Indeed, Justice Kenneth Mackenzie wrote in his decision that the B.C. School Act and the claim that all vestiges of religious belief are unwanted in secular institutions are unfounded:
“There was no verbatim record of debates in the B.C. legislature in 1876 and the rationale for adding ‘secular’ to ‘strictly non-sectarian’ is obscure. I think it can be inferred, however, that the addition was intended to reinforce the non-denominational character of the public schools. The fact that the Lord’s Prayer was introduced in 1891 without any perceived inconsistency with ‘strictly secular’ implies that the prohibition was aimed at denominational indoctrination and ecclesiastical control rather than morality associated with non-denominational Christianity. In the social and political culture of the times, I have little doubt that the architects of the 1876 amendment would have been startled and dismayed at the suggestion that secular required religious unbelief.”
“Can ‘strictly secular’ in s. 76(1) of the School Act be interpreted as limited to moral positions devoid of religious influence? Are only those with a non-religiously informed conscience to be permitted to participate in decisions involving moral instruction of children in the public schools? Must those whose moral positions arise from a conscience influenced by religion be required to leave those convictions behind or otherwise be excluded from participation while those who espouse similar positions emanating from a conscience not informed by religious considerations are free to participate without restriction?
“Simply to pose the questions in such terms can lead to only one answer in a truly free society. Moral positions must be accorded equal access to the public square without regard to religious influence. A religiously informed conscience should not be accorded any privilege, but neither should it be placed under a disability. In a truly free society moral positions advance or retreat in their influence on law and public policy through decisions of public officials who are not required to pass a religious litmus test.”
Stilwell adds: “But the issue at hand is the rights of parents to have control over what their children can and cannot be taught. That is why we appealed – and that is why our stand was vindicated. The courts have agreed: parents have the right to dictate what their children can and cannot be exposed to in the classroom – a right now protected across Canada.”
Joining in the case as interveners, were the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver.
Gary Walsh of the EFC responded to the victory stating that: “This decision is good news for Christian parents as the court strongly endorses their right to participate in decisions affecting the education of their children.”
Archbishop Adam Exner agrees: “The judges have ruled that parents have the right to educate their children in keeping with their own religious and moral convictions.”
Where to now? Heather Stilwell is still overwhelmed by the show of support by people in the Surrey community.
“Everywhere I go, wherever I turn, people come up to me and say ‘Hang in there, you’re doing a great job.’ I’ve never seen this type of response on any other issue before. It’s the government and media who are trapped in the time warp of the 1960s. Today, parents want to be actively involved in the education of their children. They want to have the final say on what their children are taught. As a school board how can we ignore their voice?”