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Hamilton public board scraps interfaith advisory committee

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board is disbanding a community committee that advises it on religious matters.

Board chair Tim Simmons said a governance review determined the interfaith advisory committee is no longer needed because many of the issues it dealt with, like religious holidays, are “operational in nature” and best left to staff to address.

The committee grew out of a controversy at Westmount Secondary School over how to accommodate a lunch-hour Christian club about 10 years ago, but there are no longer any faith clubs at any schools.

It last made news when it opposed a June 2012 board decision to no longer help the Gideons hand out the New Testament to Grade 5 students because doing so might violate the Ontario Human Rights Code by discriminating against other faiths.

The committee included Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Hindu and First Nations representatives, but only six of 13 members were on hand for the Bible vote.

Simmons, who represented the board on the committee, said trustees and staff will still be able to consult members on any faith issues as they arise.

 “We’re not picking on them. It’s part of a whole governance review and ensuring that we’re using people’s time in a meaningful way,” he said. “We will be talking to them about how we might continue in another capacity.”

The interfaith group, which met three or four times a year, is the lone community advisory committee to be disbanded thus far as part of the review.

Trustees decided to keep three others – on French immersion, rural schools, and First Nations, Métis and Inuit issues – at their Oct. 28 board meeting.

Efforts to reach the interfaith committee’s chair, Pastor Jason Small of Community Church in Waterdown, were unsuccessful by deadline.

But in a voicemail message, he said he was scheduled to meet this week with Simmons and Dundas trustee Jessica Brennan to discuss the decision.

Despite voting in favour of disbanding the interfaith committee, central Mountain trustee Lillian Orban said she’s unhappy with how the decision was made and “the board erred in judgment” by not giving notice beforehand to allow members to respond.

She said she fears a diverse community has lost an outlet for speaking to the board on religious issues.

“I think this group deserved a hearing or input prior to the decision of the board,” Orban said.

“For me, it was so wonderful to have this offered in a public board,” she said. “We may not always agree, but the fact is that just to listen and be heard, they felt good about that.”

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