The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board will no longer help the Gideons hand out the New Testament to Grade 5 students by sending permission cards home to parents on the Christian group’s behalf.
Trustees voted 6-4 on Monday to end the practice after being told it unintentionally discriminates against other religions and potentially violates the Ontario Human Rights Code if other faith groups aren’t given the same opportunity.
Schools will now be barred from distributing any non-instructional, faith-based material, although they can still make them available for viewing at their library. Nearly all elementary schools helped hand out the Gideon Bibles.
In supporting the new policy, board chair Tim Simmons said continuing the existing practice would force the board to invite every faith-based group or sect to take part and “require a bureaucracy” to vet materials and handle appeals.
“If we were to go in that direction, we would become a very different board altogether. We wouldn’t be a public school board any more,” Simmons said.
“We have institutions that do this job already and they are called churches,” he said. “Maybe the churches need to look at the job they do to provide this kind of material and not put it on a public school system where we don’t have the resources.”
But West Mountain Trustee Wes Hicks said the board should study the issue further before banning the distribution of all holy texts.
He said trustees spent “long hours” to arrive at an equity policy and should show the same effort here, especially since both student trustees argued in favour of finding a way to make the existing practice more inclusive.
“If you have an opportunity to add, from an educational point of view, I think that’s extremely important,” Hicks said.
“Why don’t we take a look at trying to solve the problem? And if it’s too big and too huge, then we have some information that maybe we should go another direction.”
The ban was also opposed by the board’s interfaith advisory committee, which includes Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Baha’i, Hindu and First Nations representatives.
But Judith Bishop, trustee for wards 1 and 2, said the majority of the committee’s members are Christian and expressed concern that only six of 13 members were on hand for a vote endorsing the distribution of religious material.
She said helping hand out the New Testament gives the appearance of supporting “a particular faith” and students can still learn about the major religions through history and world religion classes that educate, rather than proselytize.
“I think the education of people about religion is tremendously important,” Bishop said. “That is a very different job than promoting religious books,” she said. “We are a secular board and we have to be careful not to be seen in any way favouring any particular religious approach in our schools.”