Skip to content

Secular parent wins battle against Gideon Bibles in schools

|Written By Glenn Kauth

Students in Niagara Region won’t be getting those Gideon Bibles so many Canadians remember receiving in class unless their local school board agrees to let atheists distribute their own materials.

Allowing only Gideons to distribute religious literature is discriminatory, ruled an HRTO tribunal.

That’s the word from the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which ruled on an atheist father’s challenge to the long-standing practice of distributing Gideon Bibles in schools last week in R.C. v. District School Board of Niagara.

“Allowing only the Gideons, a Christian group, to distribute religious literature in the board’s schools under the version of the policy in place when S.C. was in Grade 5 discriminated against the applicants,” wrote HRTO associate chairman David Wright in his Aug. 13 decision.

“S.C. was a student and R.C. was a parent in a school board where, pursuant to policy, representatives of one creed and no others, including atheists, were permitted to distribute religious texts to students in the schools. They were asked to consent to S.C. receiving the text of one creed with which she did not identify and there was no opportunity for her to receive literature from any other creed that wished to provide it.”

The father, R.C., launched the legal challenge after the principal of his daughter’s school sent home a note in November 2009 that included a permission slip for the Gideons to give her a Bible after class. While the note indicated participation was voluntary, R.C. contacted the principal proposing that he be able to distribute another book, Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children, that promotes atheism and, among other things, compares God to Santa Claus.

While the school’s council ultimately decided to distribute neither book, R.C. made a second request to hand out Just Pretend in early 2010. The board declined, arguing schools have the right to sponsor the study of all religions without imposing the view of any particular creed. In its view, according to the ruling, atheism isn’t a religion. In addition, it suggested Just Pretend was a secondary publication as opposed to a globally recognized sacred text.

When it came to whether atheism counts as a creed protected by the Human Rights Code, Wright found in R.C.’s favour.

“In my view, a purposive interpretation of the prohibition on discrimination because of ‘creed’ in the code includes a prohibition on discrimination because a person is atheist,” wrote Wright.

“The difficulty with the respondent’s position is illustrated by the following example of its consequences,” he added. “If an employer decided to dismiss all employees who did not share the religious faith of the president of the company, those who belonged to other religions would have a claim, but not those who are atheist, agnostic or who do not have a view on religion. It would allow the province, a service provider or an employer to enforce particular views and practices on those with atheist views or no clear views about such matters, but not on those who actively believe in a different religion. This is not a purposive interpretation of the code.”

In the end, Wright found that allowing only the Gideons to distribute literature in Niagara schools was discriminatory. While the board has since revised its policy to grant discretion over the distribution of religious materials more generally, Wright found the move to be insufficient, particularly given its restriction to recognized sacred texts.

As such, he struck the board’s current policy and ordered it to revise its approach and “make at least some efforts to encourage a diversity of literature and awareness of the policy under which the materials could be distributed.”

The policy should include allowing for the distribution of atheist materials, a prospect Wright admitted could be controversial.

I understand that some parents and students may not agree with some of the content of atheist literature like Just Pretend. However, the applicant and others do not agree with some of the content of the Gideon Bible. If the board decides to have a policy permitting distribution of religious literature, it must be prepared to accept that some parents and students might object to materials that others, with parental permission, are receiving. If it is prepared to distribute permission forms proposing the distribution of Christian texts to committed atheists, it must also be prepared to distribute permission forms proposing the distribution of atheist texts to religious Christians. It cannot design its criteria in a way that would permit communication of materials setting out their beliefs by some, but not all creeds.

For its part, the board says it respects the tribunal’s decision.

“Our locally elected trustees are responsible for determining board policy and we will forward the information contained in the order to them for their review and consideration,” says District School Board of Niagara spokesman Brett Sweeney.

“The tribunal’s decision provides for two possible courses of action and our trustees will collaborate with each other, engage with parents, and consider the best interests of the students we serve to determine the best way to move forward.”

  • Antithesis

    David Hugh Porter
    I am unclear how athiesm will provide to me anything hopeful or of substance. It appears to be only for the purpose of arguing against faith. My preferance is to not be controlled by make belief concepts and ideas. If atheism were to be considered a creed where are the anchoring points. Athiesm looks like a crutch were you can believe in any hypothesis and constant revised scientific concepts as long as it is against faith, hope, and prayer. Stop for a moment a think about what we are in this vast and infinate universe. Putting Santa Clause and fairy tails equal to the Bible does not cut it. Athiesm is a crutch for those who want to blaim the all mighty for our shortfalls.
  • RE: Secular parent wins battle against Gideon Bibles in schools

    I worry about equating atheism with religion. This precedent could have undesired implications. If atheism is a religion, then why not think Darwinism is a religion, and argue that it's discriminatory for the education system to distribute and cover evolutionary-based 'theories' of the origins of life while ignoring 'magic-fairy-in-the-sky' based theories?
  • ForgottenForge545
    It is not an equation that means that atheism is a religion - not having a religion is a world view that under this ruling should be protected as a creed which is just as worthy as those considered religious.

    In other words, this ruling strengthens the 'freedom of religion = freedom from religion too'.

    Furthermore a 'theory' in science is the pinnacle of hypotheses and continued testings. The science behind theories and the effects that these have had on modern life are demonstrably true and can be shown under laboratory conditions to be true time and time again.

    Magic fairy in the sky theories fail the scientific methodology and at no stage can be considered to be of equal value.
  • RE: Secular parent wins battle against Gideon Bibles in schools

    gretta vosper
    A reflective decision; however, unless atheist groups are able to fund the distribution of materials in the same way as are the Gideons, it may remain that only the latter's materials will be distributed. I would prefer adecision that did not leave children's minds prey to whatever group has the better fundraising abilities. Richard Dawkins has a marvellous children's edition of The Magic of Reality that would be a great book to distribute, but the question of funding immediately presents a problems.
  • Angela Squires
    I think several of the free thought, atheist, skeptic, and other organizations promoting choice and not indoctrination would be interested in funding The Magic of Reality. The RDF would certainly be interested. I don't know if any are pursuing this but I will notify CFI Canada of this idea.
  • gretta vosper
    Thanks, Angela! I think they would be supportive, too. Let's work together on this!
  • RE: Secular parent wins battle against Gideon Bibles in schools

    David Owen
    Children at school should be allowed to make their own mind up about following a faith or not following any faith. Trying to brainwash children with one particular world view is a predatory act. Gideons bibles in schools is a tradition we should stop. It would be great if the world's hotel chains would send their bibles back too.




  • clawbies 2015
    clawbies 2014
  • clawbies 2013
    clawbies 2012
  • clawbies 2011
    clawbies 2010