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Religion in public schools

I. Some distinctions

There are three ways in which religion has or can play a part in the public schools of British Columbia. These ways should be clearly distinguished from each other.

First, there is the observance of a particular religion through public religious exercises. Such exercises have been held in most B.C. classrooms since 1944 as required by provincial law. We hold that such religious exercises are an invasion of civil liberties as well as a practice having no Instructional or moral value. Second, there is in some provinces instruction in the dogma of one particular faith to the exclusion of other faiths. Such instruction has fortunately not occurred and should obviously not occur in British Columbia. Third, is the study of the subject matter of religion in the curriculum. Such study of the major world religions as a part of history and literature has only rarely occurred in B.C. schools. We shall attempt to show that such study is valuable and that we have mistakenly looked to religious exercises to fill this need.

II. Values

Not necessarily related to religious exercises, dogmatic religious instruction, or the study of religions, is the question of the inculcation of values or ethics. The need for such values is frequently advanced as a reason for religions exercises in schools.

We believe that young people absorb the values of the culture in which they live, Until the level of violence in our society is reduced and a more humane value system is evident, it will be difficult for young people to believe that their elder affirm creative values, and they will have little incentive to affirm them for themselves.

III. Present law: Brief history

Religious instruction in the public schools has been widely interpreted as Biblical teaching or reading, This policy has created spirited controversy, especially where children of different religions and denominations are in the same classroom, Compulsory courses in sectarian religion during regular school hours have been commonly barred in Canada. In some provinces such courses are taught after school hours by selected denominational teachers. Where there are credit carrying courses, such as Biblical literature in the secondary schools in B.C., they are electives.

Prior to 1944, British Columbia was the only province in which Bible reading was not permitted in the public schools. The Public Schools Act stated that all public schools should be conducted “on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles”. The Act urged inculcation of the “highest morality”, but specified that no religious dogma or creed could be taught. The Act did allow one religious observance, however, by permitting use of the Lord’s Prayer in opening or closing school. Strict separation of church and state was further protected by another section of the Act which disqualified all clergymen from eligibility for the positions of Superintendent of Education, Inspector, teacher or trustee. There were numerous citizen protests against the exclusion of Bible reading from the public schools, especially during the two world wars, when the public conscience was aroused by examples of extreme moral cruelty and depravity. In 1944, the government of British Columbia responded to these protests by amending the Public Schools Act to provide for compulsory Bible reading at the opening of the school day, to be followed by a compulsory recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. This amendment appears as section 167 of the present Public Schools Act, and reads as follows:

167. All public schools shall be opened by the reading, without explanation or comment, of a passage of Scripture to be selected from readings prescribed or approved by the Council of Public Instruction. The reading of the passage of Scripture shall be followed by the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, but otherwise the schools shall be conducted on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles. The highest morality shall be inculcated, but no religious dogma or creed shall be taught. 1948, c.42, s.167

The compulsory nature of the Bible reading and prayer recitation is slightly modified by regulations drawn up by the Council of Public Instruction. These regulations provide that either a teacher or student who has conscientious ground for objecting to the religious observances may be excused from them. The procedure to be followed in such cases is outlined in the regulations, which follow in full:

Division (15)—Scripture Readings (Section 167)

15.01 Where a teacher sends a written notice to the Board of School Trustees or official trustee by whom he is employed that he has conscientious objections to conducting the. ceremony of reading prescribed selections from the Bible and reciting the Lord’s Prayer (as provided by Section 167 of the Public Schools Act), he shall be excused from such duty, and in such case it shall be the duty of the Board of School Trustees or official trustee concerned to arrange with the Principal to have the ceremony conducted by some other teacher in the school, or by a school trustee, or, where neither of these alternatives is possible, by one of the senior pupils of the school or by some other suitable person other than an ordained member of a religious sect or denomination.

15.02 Where the parent or guardian of any pupil attending a public school sends a written notice to the teacher of the pupil stating that for conscientious reasons he does not wish the pupil to attend the ceremony of reading prescribed selections from the Bible and reciting the Lord’s Prayer at the opening of school, the teacher shall excuse the pupil from attendance at such ceremony and at his discretion may assign the pupil some other useful employment at school during that period, but the pupil so excused shall not be deprived of any other benefits of the school by reason of his non-attendance at the ceremony.

IV. Present practice

Teachers and students in the schools of Vancouver, North Vancouver and West Vancouver in describing current practice regarding opening exercises show that there has been little change from the findings of the 1965 Consultative Committee Report on Religious Exercises in the Schools. (This report came as a result of the 1964 BCTF resolution recommending that religious exercises be discontinued in British Columbia public schools). The findings of the Committee were:

  1. That there is considerable dissatisfaction among teachers with religious exercises in British Columbia schools.
  2. That some teachers feel that in spite of the provision of Regulation 15.01 of the School Act, ensuring freedom of conscience, there is a measure of coercion which results from the requirements of Section 167 and which seems, therefore, to constitute an infringement of civil rights.
  3. That other teachers feel dissatisfaction because the prescribed exercises seem to be of doubtful religious or educational value.
  4. That there is confusion concerning the purposes of the exercises, whether they are intended to be devotional or instructional.
  5. That if the exercises are intended to be devotional, the requisite devotional atmosphere is difficult to ensure in the classroom.
  6. That if the exercises are intended to be instructional, the School Act’s prohibition of questions or comments concerning their content renders them of little educational value.
  7. That many teachers do not feel themselves professionally qualified to give leadership in either devotional exercises or religious instruction.
  8. That because of the dissatisfaction that exists, the strict requirements of the Act tend to be circumvented in ways that render the exercises of even less devotional or educational value.
  9. That the difficulties encountered in making the exercises fulfil their intended function are greater in the secondary than in the elementary schools.

One aspect of present practice often mentioned is the use in many schools of the loud speaker system for the readings rather than having the teacher read in each class room—with the reading being poorly done and frequently ignored by students.

V. Proposed revision of the public school law

As an Association we advance all the above arguments against the current law and practice, but more central to our concern is the matter of invasion of civil liberties which that law and practice entails.

Compulsory observance of one religion in the public schools does violence to the rights of the non-Christian community. Both the non-Christian child who submits, and the courageous one who exercises his legal option not to participate in the religious observance, are placed in a position of grave discomfort. The children excused from religious observance have not, to our knowledge, been provided with the legally required “other useful employment at school during that period”. The non-Christian child is made to suffer because of his religious background. This is untenable in a democratic society.

For the above reasons, we propose that Section 167 of the Public Schools Act be amended to read as follows:

All public schools shall be conducted on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles, No religious dogma or creed shall be taught, and no religious practices shall be observed. Nothing in this section shall be interpreted to prohibit the academic study of religion in all its aspects wherever it is appropriate within the school curriculum.

The regulations provided by the Council on Public Instruction should be deleted in their entirety, as they would no longer be relevant to the amended law. In their place should be suggestions for incorporating the study of religion in the appropriate places in the school curriculum.

VI. The study of the subject matter of religion

Instruction in the history of religions should be given as part of humans’ larger history. Religions themselves are as proper subjects of history as are the nation states. Each of the great religions should be familiar to the educated persons in the global village. The scriptures of each of the major religions are in themselves an important part of literature and deserve study on that basis.

The teaching of the Bible as literature and history is supported by the 1969 Report of the Committee on Religious Education in the Public Schools of the Province of Ontario, (Religious Information and Moral Development) in the following words:

The most significant change we recommend in the opening exercises is the cessation of Bible readings at the opening of school. Many briefs have criticized the reading of the Bible…. The Committee feels that reading of the Holy Bible should not form part of the opening exercises but rather should occur as part of literature, history or other courses. (p. 36)

The 1969 request of the Vancouver School Board that the Public Schools Act be changed also makes the same point:

…This Board deems it more appropriate that in our schools the Bible be studied as history, language and literature and that the importance of all the world’s religions be included in the curriculum.

The reading of scripture without comment as part of the religious exercise does not create the knowledge of scripture required to be a literate reader of much of English language literature. Of what meaning is Melville’s choice of the name Ahab, or his use of the simile of Rachel weeping for her child In Moby Dick, or of Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom, or even the Beatles’ Hey, Jude without some awareness of the rich associations and relevance of these names to the use made of them?