Rights group intervenes in Surrey School Board Appeal: Separation of church and state at issue

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Today the B.C. Civil Liberties Association appeared as an intervenor before the B.C. Court of Appeal in the case James Chaimberlain et al v. The Board of Trustees of School District #36 (Surrey). The rights group argued that in refusing to approve three books for use in public school classrooms, the Surrey School Board violated B.C.’s School Act, which prohibits public schools from giving official sanction to religious values or points of view.

The three books in question contain depictions of same sex parents as normal and acceptable, prompting some Surrey parents to complain to the Board that the depictions conflicted with the religious beliefs they were teaching their children at home. In a B.C. Supreme Court decision last year, Madam Justice Saunders ruled that the Board violated section 76 of the School Act when it refused to approve the three books because of parents’ concerns, and ordered them to reconsider the matter. The Board is appealing that ruling.

Section 76(1) requires B.C. public schools to be conducted on “strictly secular and non-sectarian principles”.

“We think that Madame Justice Saunders got it right”, said BCCLA Executive Director John Westwood today. “Section 76(1) is the B.C. Legislature’s version of the principle of separation of church and state in the context of our public schools. The evidence is clear that the Board was substantially motivated in its decision by religious considerations, and that’s against the law.”

The BCCLA is intervening in support of a group of teachers, parents and students who brought forward the legal challenge to the Board’s decision.

“We are grateful for the BCCLA’s support,” said Murray Warren, one of the petitioners in the case, “They were there from the beginning: urging the Surrey School Board to approve the books, helping us get the case going, and intervening at the trial level.” In its argument before the Court of Appeal the BCCLA will also rely on section 76(2) of the School Act, which requires public schools to “inculcate the highest morality”. The BCCLA notes that the trial judge ruled that section 76(2) requires public schools to incorporate the values contained in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, including section 15, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

“Charter values are some of the most important secular moral values in Canada,” Westwood said. “School Boards must take these values into account when making decisions about the school curriculum and resource materials. In refusing to approve the three books solely on the basis that they offended the religious views of some parents about homosexuality, the board failed to do so.”

BCCLA counsel Chris Sanderson added, “The B.C. legislature determined in the latter half of the nineteenth century that public schools should be conducted on secular not religious principles. The Surrey School Board’s appeal here invites the Court to reconsider this separation of church and state as we begin the twenty-first century. We will submit that the Court ought to decline the invitation.”