Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Distribution of Holy Books in Public Schools: Gideon’s Shine a Light

The Globe and Mail (April 4, 2006 Petti Fong, “Bibles Offered to Public School Raise Row”) carries an article regarding the 60-year-old practice of a group called the Gideons that, amongst other things, distributes bibles on request to Grade 5 students in public schools. They are now on the defensive on the grounds that their practice is somehow offensive. It is being argued against them that the nature of public schools somehow precludes their practices. What are the principles that should guide principals?

In what follows there are some principles that should provide the stuff for the Gideons to answer unflinchingly the questions put to them and why Trustees in Richmond B.C. (the place of latest contention) and elsewhere should continue the practice of giving the Gideons the ability to exercise their generosity in the distribution of free bibles to public school students. Arguments to the contrary are dangerous to freedom.

The Gideons have developed a very respectful practice that is well in line with pluralism, multi-culturalism and the primary role of parents in the education of the young. Of course it won’t please those who wish religious things didn’t exist or were safely stowed away in the privacy of irrelevant chapels, synagogues, temples or mosques.

The Gideons do not now march into classrooms and give a bible to every child disregarding the beliefs of parents. This was the way they did it, with the best of intentions no doubt, and in accordance with those hymn singing days many years ago, when I was a student at a now closed public elementary school in Victoria, B.C. In that year of our Lord (we were old fashioned then and not so Common as we are now), at Uplands Elementary, the Gideons even put out a special Canadian centenary edition in gold to mark 1967 - - and everyone got one whether their parents wanted it or not. I am sure we have it in a box somewhere to this day.

It had a blank sheet at the back where one could fill in the exact day and time where one gave ones’ life to Jesus.

That practice of distributing bibles in that indiscriminate manner, as if they were food aid to the starving, has gone. To fit with our times, the Gideons have developed a careful procedure to respect those who might disagree with bibles. Bibles, apart from continuing to outsell hotcakes, still scare many people. Ideas have consequences and some people think that the best way to avoid certain consequences is to restrict ideas. Perhaps that is a decision best left to the parents in any case as they are, after all, the ones for whom the public education system exists - - not the other way around.

The dispute now is whether the Gideons should even be able to distribute free bibles at all via a very nuanced system. Apparently the Gideons put a notice (or the school trustees allow such a notice) in the school newsletter (sent home to parents) with a form that can be returned to the school with a parent’s signature, back to the Gideons and then a free bible is sent to the requesting student/parents.

This is a model of sensitivity and parental involvement and should continue.

Yet, this system appears to be not sufficiently invisible for some people, such as the parent in the article who operates under a very strange notion of “neutrality.” She thinks that “secular” means “non-religious”…she operates under a rather common but secularistic understanding powered (whether or not she is aware of it) by the anti-religious ideology of “secularism.”

However, there are those who are attempting to misuse the usual “magic words” to ensure that religions have no access to public school students. This is unjust and exactly represents the goal of “secularism” (an ideology started formally in the mid 19th Century by those who followed the man who coined the term “secularism”: George Jacob Holyoake). Secularism has always sought to describe the “secular” as “non-religious.” It isn’t helped by all the religious adherents who merrily prattle on about “religion AND the secular” without realizing how their construction of the relationship is helping the removal of religious belief from public relevance.

This has been a very successful strategy and most people today speak of secular in contradistinction to religious as in the ubiquitous (and wrong) phrase “Religion AND the secular.” The fact is that the secular properly understood includes religion and, if we needed legal authority for this (most things nowadays seem to exist only if the courts determined they exist), then we need look no further than the December 2002 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in the Chamberlain decision.

In that case, the court determined that “secular principles” must include not exclude religious believers. Nine judges to zero they upheld the three judges of the BC Court of Appeal who had ruled that “secular” must include religious believers since it included believers of other sorts (atheists and agnostics) and there was no “religious litmus test” (the phrase was Justice McKenzie’s at the Court of Appeal) to ensure that a decision of someone in public education was not “influenced by religion” (as Justice Saunders had ruled at trial). The approach of Justice Saunders was the wrong and religious exclusive one that the parent in Richmond is arguing. That approach was ruled legally incorrect. The highest courts in B.C. and Canada unanimously held that we have a religiously inclusive conception of the “secular” in the Dominion not the one espoused by an overturned trial judge or wished for by a disgruntled parent (and those who support her).

In short, “secular,” properly understood, includes religion and the public sphere (including law, politics and public education) and must not operate to exclude religious believers while giving privileged place to the beliefs, say, of atheists and agnostics. Shall we all say it together on three: “EVERYONE is a believer, the question is, IN WHAT?” If everyone is a believer (clearly the case) then atheists and agnostics, as believers, have no privileged place as against religious believers.

So far so good. But, soft, the B.C. Civil Liberties spokesman is quoted as saying that distribution of bibles “… carries no threat of undermining the secularism of our school system, but it’s a practice that ought to be quietly ended.” Excuse me? “The secularism of our school system….” It is as if one, in wide, confident and windy terms endorsed as a given: “the cannibalism of our school cafeterias.”

Secularism, as just discussed, is an anti-religious ideology designed to put religious believers behind the eight ball. As such it must not be the principle guiding Principals. Those interested in a detailed discussion of this might wish to see my “Considering Secularism” in Farrow ed. Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society (McGill/Queens Press, 2004) copies of which may be obtained from the Centre for Cultural Renewal’s office in Ottawa for a derisory price (Tel: 613 567 9010). [Suggestion for Centre Staff: perhaps we should be sending requests for this volume home with school children?] I digress.

So with respect to the new President of BCCLA (on whose Board I served for about seven years many moons ago just so faithful readers, or the faithful reader, will not think I have an axe to grind here) he is completely incorrect. Secularism is not now, should not ever have been (if it was) and ought not to be, going forwards, a principle of public education in BC or anywhere else.

The question then is: who should be able to offer free books to parents? Answer: any group that wants to. The only restriction would be that anything which Trustees reasonably deem harmful to students (say an anarchistic tome with a very naughty title) might be held out on common sense grounds ab initio. But as for the rest, it is the parents who are the primary educators of the young and they delegate their authority to the public systems.

“Involve and ask the parents” is a good rule of thumb.

The real tragedy is the few who request free bibles! According to the news-story, only two requests in 38 schools. This is a sad reflection of the times. As any educated person knows: a failure, even on literary grounds (to take a more banal example) to know what the bible contains, is a failure to be properly educated. I once had a professor of literature in Scotland who thought that “salt of the earth” was a term coined by Coleridge in the Biographia Literaria! Now that is a view fit only to be trodden underfoot! As for the Gideons, they ought not to be forced to put their light under trustee shaped bushels.

In a plural and multi-cultural society we will likely disagree about what books are holy and what are merely instructions about story and fable. But to exclude religious groups from any cooperative stance with respect to public education on the assumption we are “past all that” is the highest form of arrogance.

Long may the Trustees continue to give the Gideons access in the way they are doing it and long may the Gideons continue with their work of bringing light to the darkness that comprehendeth it not.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 117
Iain T. Benson ©