Should Christ be Allowed in the Classroom?

More Canadian children than ever before are receiving religious instruction in their public schools while parents, churches and school boards wage a bitter double-barreled debate: Can education really be education if it neglects spiritual matters? But can anything as personal as religion be taught simultaneously to pupils of differing creeds?

FRED BODSWORTH August 15 1952

Should Christ be Allowed in the Classroom?

More Canadian children than ever before are receiving religious instruction in their public schools while parents, churches and school boards wage a bitter double-barreled debate: Can education really be education if it neglects spiritual matters? But can anything as personal as religion be taught simultaneously to pupils of differing creeds?

FRED BODSWORTH August 15 1952

Should Christ be Allowed in the Classroom?


More Canadian children than ever before are receiving religious instruction in their public schools while parents, churches and school boards wage a bitter double-barreled debate: Can education really be education if it neglects spiritual matters? But can anything as personal as religion be taught simultaneously to pupils of differing creeds?


RELIGION, once as rigidly excluded as sex from the average Canadian classroom, is returning to our public schools amid the rumblings of a debate as old as the nation and as fundamental as Christianity itself. One of the traditional principles on which Canada's public-school system was built—the rigid separation of church and state in educational affairs—has been modified until today only four Canadian provinces still have laws which unconditionally forbid religious instruction in publicly supported schools. Yet the issue of religion in schools, on which even people of like religious beliefs often find it impossible to agree, has lost none of its power to stir Canadian teachers, parents and clergymen to bitter disagreement.

Roman Catholics are largely outside the controversy, for in five of Canada’s ten provinces they operate their own separate schools in which religion can be stressed without denominational disagreement. But close to seventy prercent of Canadian elementary students attend public nondenominational schools in which the problem of how much religion to teach and how to teach it becomes highly controversial because classes are of mixed faiths.

Many parents and educators feel that religiou* education for all children is an urgent need in a modern world that seems to have lost sight of the moral and spiritual values which formed the groundwork of our civilization. Thousands of members of minority religious groups fight it violently because they fear their children will be subjected to the propaganda of rival faiths. Othi r • oppose it arguing that when a government prescribes religious instruction it infringes on rights which belong exclusively to the individual and his church. State-directed religion in public schools, they say, amounts to partial abolition of democracy’s traditional freedom of religion. Furthermore, they argue that any course in religion which can be taught in a class of mixed faiths without offending some of those faiths must be a watereddown, nondenominational religion which falls short of being a satisfactory religion at all.

The (ontroversy is as old as formal education itself. Bible teaching and religion naturally assumed an important place in Canada’s pioneer schools. Canadian pioneers were God-fearing people and most settlements were composed of members holding similar religious beliefs, so there were few grounds for disagreement. But as population grew, so did the number of disagreeing religious factions.

With Confederation, education became a provincial responsibility and school courses had to be standardized on a provincial basis. Because of the growth of religious denominationalismeach denomination with its own interpretation of Scripture it liecame increasingly difficult to agree on religious instruction that would satisfy all. Amid bickering of sect against sect educational authorities had to keep chopping down the religioucontent of the school courses. Eventually, weil before the turn of the century, religion was banished entirely from the public-school courses of most provinces and the separation of church and state in the educational field became a widely defended policy.

By the 1920s religious instruction in publicschools was forbidden by law in many provinces.

In others optional clauses in the school acts permitted religious education if the local boards desired it-and very few of them did. Even religious exercises the opening or closing of school with prayers, Bible reading or hymns—were barred by a great many school boards. In British Columbia it was debated whether the National Anthem should be sung in schools, since it is actually a prayer.

Around 1930 the wisdom of complete removal of religion from the schools began to be questioned by many pieople who had once favored the removal.

Religion slowly began returning to school courses.

During World War

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Two, the trend gained momentum rapidly. The juvenile delinquency of the war years and the fact of the war itself were regarded as evidence that modem education had become too materialistic and secular, that in barring religion we were also barring the basis of moral and ethical training.

Religious exercises, which need to be carefully distinguished from religious instruction, are now a normal opening and closing feature of practically all Canadian schools. The Lord’s Prayer and daily Bible readings are demanded by the school acts of six provinces. In the other four Nova Scotia, New Brunswick. Manitoba and Saskatchewan' religious exercises are permitted if desired locally, and few school areas now ban the practice. Manitoba. Alberta and British Columbia guard against controversial entanglements with the stipulation that religious exercises be carried out “without explanation or comment.” Their policy: we’ll read the Bible to the children but parents or their church can tell them what it means.

The four provinces which still exclude all religious instruction from the schools are Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and British Columbia. But in two of these (Nova Scotia and British Co lumhiai the stand against religion in schools is weakening. Nova Scotia now permits its schools to be used for religious classes by teachers or clergymen where parents request it—but only after school hours. And a government committee is working out a plan of religious education which, if accepted, may become obligatory in Nova Scotia schools. The officiel British Columbia attitude toward religion in schools is sti’l pretty much a hands-off policy, even to the point of ruling that clergymen are ineligible as teachers or school trustees. But British Columbia lias approved an optional high-school course in Bible study, and students passing this course are awarded credits toward their high-school graduation. However, the course must be taken outside school and after school

The Protestant schools of Quebec, which are left to operate more or less within a denominational framework because of the “\tensive development of Roman C atholic separate schools in that province, have had religious courses for years but any pupil can be excused at the request of parents. Ontario brought in an officially prescribed course of religious education for its public schools in 19-44, although schools or individual pupils are granted exemptions when school boards or parents request it.

Newfoundland province, like the Roman Catholics, is outside the religion - in - schools controversy because most schools there are denominational schools, operated by the Church of England. Roman Catholic Church. United Church. Salvation Army or Seventh Day Adventists. Only thirtythree of’he province’s twelve-hundredodd schools are nondenominational. Usually the district clergyman is chairman of the local school board and since the character and amount of religious instruction is left to the local boards there is considerable religious education of a denominational nature.

In Manitoba. Saskatchewan and Alberta religious education is op tional under permissive legislation which passes the buck to local school boards. These provinces say in effect:

“(’all in a clergyman and teach religion if you want to.” Ontario’s plan with its provisions for exemptions can be interpreted as a policy of: “Here it is, you must teach it unless you have permission not to.”

Ontario has published a series of teachers’ guide books, one for each of the first six grades, which set down lesson hy lesson a recommended course for teachers to follow*. The principle and the content of the textbooks themselves—sparked the first largescale Canadian battle over the religion-in-schools issue since religion's

temporary banishment from schools more than half a century ago. Ia-ttersto-editor columns bristled with opinions for and against. Hundreds of ministers and rabbis preached sermons on the question. Jews criticized the texts because they contained too much Christian doctrine: many Protestants, especially Presbyterians, criticized them because there was not enough Christian doctrine. Organizations sprang up. passed resolutions, circulated petitions and inserted large advertisements in newspapers with such contentious headings as Religious Free-

dom at Stake and Religious Freedom Upheld.

Meanwhile an Ontario royal commission had begun a study of the province’s whole educational system in 1945. Mr. Justice Hope and his fellow commissioners were deluged with briefs and representations decrying the religious education plan. In December 1950 the Hope report (nine hundred and thirty-three pages' was made public. It called Ontario’s religious education plan “eminently satisfactory*." recommended not only that it be continued but that it be broadened

to include secondary schools and junior colleges.

Religion-in-schools opponents had apparently taken a trouncing. But they have by no means been silenced.

What, fundamentally, is the fighting all about? What does religion in schools really mean in terms of what children are taught? The Ontario course is typical of the simplified, nondoctrinal courses on Bible stories and Christian living that are today being adopted in Britain and many U.S. states.

At Pape Avenue School in Toronto, Principal Clare Fallis and teachers from four different grades—all of them strong believers in the practical value of religious education—gave me a digest on the Ontario course, discussed some typical lessons for the different grade levels and commented on the effect of religious education on children.

‘"Children of the first two or three grades cannot understand figurative language and abstract ideas,” Mary MacNabb. a Grade One teacher, pointed out. “Christ is introduced to them as their loving Friend. The lessons endeavor to make His human personality real and living to the child. Lessons on His divinity have to wait I until later.”

The Grade One course consists of simple Bible, nature and harnest stories which dramatize in child language the harvest gifts of God and teach the virtue of helping parents and neighbors. Many of the lessons have no Biblical connection. God is introduced through j nature stories of bursting buds, baby chicks and tadpoles. The problem of racial prejudice gets attention in missionary' stories of children in other

Lesson One is a simple tale of how the Heavenly' Father, the farmer, the miller and the baker team up to proride our bread. By Lesson Twenty-five, j pupils are introduced to the Èaster story' of the resurrection in an account of Mary’s meeting with Jesus in the garden. The Grade One children are told with no elaboration that “Jesus had risen from the dead.” The emphasis is on Mary’s joy' at meeting Jesus again: no attempt is made to explain the story’s religious significance. The guide book instructs teachers: “We are laying a foundation for a later understanding of the deep spiritual meaning underlying the resurrection."’

The Grade Two course introduces the concept of God as Creator and fills in more details of the life of Chris with stories of His babyhood and boyhood. Again nature stories are used to develop the child’s understanding of God.

The first two lessons deal with the Biblical story' of creation. Teachers are warned: “The teacher should be prepared for the question ‘Who made God?’ and simply state that God has always existed.”

The creation story' as offered to the Grade Two pupils of Ontario is i cautious blending of the story' of Genesis with modem geological and astronomical fact. Genesis is accompanied by the explanation that God provided day and night by making the earth round and having it move in u path j which turned it daily from sunlight to darkness. The story reverts to Genesis with a few sentences on God’s creation of the moon and stars and His preparation for His children by the creation of dry land, seas and mountains. Then the account is embellished with some fundamentals of modem geology: “Deep valleys were carved out by swiftly running rivers . . . Sunlight and wind and rain and ice crumbled rocks to dust, making rich j soil.” Then a bit more astronomy: 1 “The world rolled on its path, some-

times feeling the sun’s warmth very much, sometimes less, and so came seasons to the world ... Frost and snow, mist and sunshine—God gave them all to make the world beautiful for His children.”

The Genesis six-day timetable of creation is not mentioned. When did creation occur? “So long ago that nobody knows when. There was no round world, nor sun. nor moon, nor any' living thing. But there was God. Before the very beginning God was

By' Lesson Three the story of creation is ended. It consists of a modem nonBiblical story' of a small child’s garden to show that God’s creative work still goes on. Nowhere in Ontario’s prescribed course of religious education do Adam and Eve, the forbidden fruitor the doctrine of original sin receive a mention.

The Bible provides very' little information on the childhood of Jesus. But the Grade Two course goes into detailed accounts of Jesus’ boyhood and home life which are frankly described to the teachers as fictional stories based on historical knowledge of how Jewish children of His time lived. Several stories of His playmates, picnics and schooldays, though without Biblical basis, are provided to picture His early life in terms of everyday happenings that public-school children of today' will understand. Late in the Grade Two course the first reference to the Old Testament appears, but continuity and the link with Jesus is retained by treating them as lessons in Jesus' school life. The lives of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are described as stories told to Jesus, and Jesus, as the fascinated listener, remains the central

In the Grade Three course God is again introduced through the medium of stories about growth and harvest. Teachers are waumed: “With town

children there is a danger that they will think that everything begins in a tin. Certainly they will find it harder to go farther back than the store. These stories should help them to a better understanding of God’s part in providing the food we eat.” To the dismay of some ministers the teachers are advised to use labels from tins of food to illustrate a lesson on foods from other lands. One minister angrily commented: “Are we supposed to believe that religion can be taught from a pork and beans label?”

The Grade Three course gets on a slightly more theological level by describing Christ in the Christmas story as “the Son of God” and “God’s great Gift to us.” At Easter, however, the teachers are advised: “To a later

period in the life of the pupil must be

left the detailed story of the trial, death and resurrection of our Lord, since children of Grade Three are not ready for the complete story.”

Grade Four receives eighteen lessons on Christ’s role as teacher and healer, then a series on how the apostles carried on Christ's work after His ascension. One lesson is devoted to the story of the upper room in which Christ’s simple and uneducated disciples received the power of the Holy Ghost which enabled them to become preachers and spread the gospel of Christ. The Bible puts considerable emphasis on the fact that the power of the Holy Ghost enabled the disciples to preach in whatever tongue their listeners happened to use, so that the spread of the gospel “to the uttermost parts of the earth” could be accomplished in spite of language barriers. But pupils learn merely that “power from God suddenly came upon the friends of Jesus . . . The slow of speech were talking freely, and timid ones had lost all sense of fear . . .” The gift of tongues is nowhere alluded to.

The Grade Four course ends with a series to show that Christ’s followers are still carrying on the work begun by the disciples. There are lessons on Dr» Bamardo, the creator of Britain’s Bamardo homes for homeless children, on Dr. Grenfell and his Labrador missions, and on Florence Nightingale.

The Grade Five course is devoted entirely to a study of the Old Testament. “The hand of God in Hebrew history is shown preparing the way for the coming of His Son,” states the introduction. Teachers are warned against stressing the Old Testament concept of a harsh and inconsistent God. “We need not dwell in detail'on the plagues of Egypt, and we must guard against showing a God who hardens Pharaoh’s heart and then punishes him ruthlessly because he would not relent towards the Hebrews.” In Grade Five, for the first time, it is recommended that pupils read the Bible passages connected with each lesson.

Grade Six returns to the New Testament and a detailed study of the life of Christ. But here, still, teachers are warned that children are not yet mentally developed to the point where they can understand Christianity’s fundamental doctrine—that Christ was a divine intervention in mankind’s

history as a revelation in human form of the nature of God. “It is hoped,” the guide book says, “that through the simplified accounts in this guide, some gleam of this great and glorious fact will dawn upon them and be the foundation for a more advanced study in the senior grades.”

Christ’s crucifixion is covered in two paragraphs. The teacher's guide says: “There are special difficulties in handling this lesson, in view’ of the sacredness of the subject, its profound significance, and the danger of blunting the children’s appreciation by too much detail, and of using adult theological phrases that are meaningless to pupils of this age.”

Ontario has not yet published religious textbooks for the last two grades of public school—Seven and Eight— and there is no detailed course of study for these grades. It is recommended that teachers in these grades link together the disconnected stories of the earlier grades into a complete historical picture, and that the gospels be studied directly from the Bible with emphasis on their ethical implications. Because of pressure of other subjects religious education gets less attention in these grades.

What do the children, oblivious to all the argument among their elders, think of religious education?

“They love it!” declared Victoria Mullan, a teacher at Wilkinson School in Toronto. “If you tell them there is not enough time for a Bible lesson today a groan fills the classroom. From my experience I would say the Bible study has become their favorite school subject. The more dramatic stories like Paul’s shipwreck and David and Goliath hold them spellbound.”

Is it having any effect on the moral development of children?

“I’m sure it is,” Principal Clare Fallis of Pape Avenue School told me. As he spoke he reached into a drawer of his desk and drew out several articles—a boy’s pocket watch, jackknife, a ten-dollar bill, a two-dollar bill. “These are all articles that have been found and turned in by pupils in the last week or two,” he said.

“The rate at which articles found by pupils are turned in voluntarily is a gauge of pupil honesty that every principal has.” Fallis said. “In recent years the practice has become much commoner among public-school chil-

dren. I give religious education a lot of the credit.”

But Ontario’s course of religious education has been bitterly condemned as a heretical falsification and distortion of the Bible by many ministers.

“It should be called a course on how to win friends and influence people, it’s not a course on religion,” Dr. A. Neil Miller, a leading Presbyterian, charges. “It uses Bible stories to illustrate a few simple ideals of praecical living, but the Bible's great and basic truths are ignored.”

Most Protestant ministers have approved of the course as a simplified introduction to the Bible and religious thought but some have bitterly criticized its stress on practical living and its almost complete neglect of theology and Christian doctrine.

One committee of ministère who reviewed the textbooks concluded: “The errors and misrepresentations are embedded in the very structure of the books, not merely in details. No revision v. ill suffice. A curriculum so deeply committed to a falsifying of God’s Word cannot be revised. It can only be abolished.”

Their biggest complaint: “The bovine equanimity with which ordinary drawing-room deportment is palmed off as the Christian faith is little short

of alarming . . . God and Jesus are completely humanized . . . There is no suggestion that the profound religious purport of the Bible might be that God sent His only begotten Son into the world to save sinners. No suggestion whatever that Jesus is the Saviour. No hint that the theme of the Bible is man's salvation from sin, death, the devil and the world by God's free grace in Jesus Christ alone. And of course no allusion to the resurrection of the dead, the second coming of our Lord and the last judgment."

Some ministers contend that the moralizing tendency of the course preaches a doctrine of salvation by good living instead of the Christian doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ. Kell is mentioned nowhere, heaven is represented merelv as the home of Cod. “Nature study is substituted for Bible study, nature w orship takes the place of the worship of God."

In Ontario, the ancient dispute over religion in the schools comes into the clearest focus because the course of study is set forth more clearly than in most other provinces. But the dispute is by no means confined to Ontario. Minority groups in every province contend it is the parents’—not the state’s—duty to teach a child the religion of his family's choice.

The minority who find it most difficult to accept religion in the schools are the Jews, who do not recognize the divinity of Christ or accept the New Testament as Holy Scripture.

“It approaches perilously close to totalitarian methods,” says Rabbi Abraham L. Feinberg, of Holy Blossom Temple. Toronto, spiritual leader of Canada’s largest Reform Hebrew congregation and an outspoken campaigner against religious teaching in public schools. “The function of the school is to bring children together from diverse backgrounds and to teach them to work and play together regardless of political or religious differences. In the public schools all creeds and origins should meet on common ground.”

Rabbi Feinberg says provisions which permit parents to have their children withdrawn from classes in religion subject the children to the embarrassment, reproach and psychological hazard of being set apart as different from the majority, a sort of “inferior class.” The Rabbi said that occasionally such children have been obliged to wait in halls and then conspicuously file back into classrooms when the religious study ends.

“The fact that many Jewish children of Ontario attend the religion courses usually means an act of resignation, a choice of what the parents think is the less injurious of two evils. Rather than make their youngsters advertise their religious differences many Jewish mothers simply let them remain in

One small Toronto Jewish girl told her mother: “We Jews are bad. We

killed Christ. The teacher read about it from a book.”

What about the teachers? “Teachers are only human," Dr. W. E. Blatz, psychologist and director of the Institute of Cliild Study, University of Toronto, says. “They are of many different faiths and it is only natural for their personal religious views to enter into their teaching of the Scriptures. To expose children to the varied interpretations of teachers of different faiths can lead only to mental confusion.”

A greater hazard is the teacher with strong religious views who deliberately takes advantage of the religious study period to advance the propaganda of his own faith, to convert minorities and ridicule other religions.

Within a year after Ontario instituted its religion course a teacher of the Cochrane area of northern Ontario, a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, was dismissed from two different schools for teaching the specific tenets of her own faith to all pupils in her

Critics claim that a course in religion that doesn't go into denominational differences and doctrine Is as incomplete and meaningless as a course of automotive mechanics in which trade names like Ford and Buiok are taboo. Such a course would turn out mechanics who know only a sort of hybrid, composite automobile that doesn't exist. A nondenominational course in religion does the sime thing, its critics say.

Of the Ontario plan. Dr. Arthur C. Cochrane, then a Presbyterian minister of Port Credit. Ont., now a professor of theology at the University of Dubuque. Iowa, said in 1940: "The

idea that the state can teach the Bible without doctrine implies that the doctrines of the church are superimposed upon the Bible: that they are not Bible teaching. The church must repudiate this implication for the sake of her very existence.”

The Canadian Jewish Congress said in its brief on religious education to Ontario’s Hope commission: “In a

futile attempt to fashion some form of religious education (which would satisfy

all) there has been an unfortunate tendency to seek for a ‘lowest common denominator’ into which all religious denominations may be squeezed. This will ultimately rob religion of its personal and intimate emotional content.”

To offend no one, the critics say, a religions course must be reduced to such vagueness that it can satisfy no one.

Finally, the case against religious education is supported by a few psychologists and others who argue that reli■rion and Bible knowledge is not the lutomatic cure-all for immorality and antisocial behavior that its defenders

Dr. Blatz notes the claim that conventional religious instruction appears to have little to do with morality. Dr. George Rex Mursall, chief psychologist of the Ohio Department of Welfare, compared groups of boys in Ohio reform schools with law-abiding children outside. He found that inmates of the reformatories had previously received as much religious training as those outside. He concluded: “It seems safe to state that there is no significant relation between religious training and delinquent behavior."

Prof. Hightower, of the University of Iowa, tested three thousand children for lying and cheating and concluded: "There appears to be no relationship of any consequence between Riblical information and the different phases of conduct.”

The case for religion in schools is presented with equal vigor by its adher-

Their argument is the growing conviction that there is something wrong with the way we have been shaping our youth. The increase in divorces, periodic outbreaks of juvenile delinquency, vandalism, lack of sportsmanship have all been cited as evidence that our educational system has been failing to inculcate the basic virtues of honesty, fair play, tolerance and unselfishness. The source and support of these virtues, the defenders of religious education argue, is the Christian religion. Ontario's Hope report on education says: "The ideals from which our

standards of conduct are derived find their origin in religion. A spiritual faith based on absolute values is the rock upon which character and conduct are built.”

About fifty percent of Canadian children are not enrolled in any Sunday schools. Where the public schools are excluding religion this great body of youth has been said to be growing up into “religious illiterates” completely ignorant of the Bible, church history and the fundamental role that Christianity has played in molding the culture and democratic institutions of our Western civilization. Religion-inschools advocates claim that the influence of Greece and Rome on the

development of Western culture and government has been disproportionately stressed while the influence of Palestine’s Judaism and Christianity has been largely ignored in an effort to avoid religious controversy.

The Inter-Church Committee on Weekday Religious Education, a Protestant organization active since the Thirties in promoting religion in public schools, has contended that in banning religion from schools the schools are not merely remaining neutral, but are exerting a powerful though unintentional influence against religion. The exclusion of religion and the emphasis on the sciences, history and mathematics convey the suggestion to children that religion is unimportant and irrelevant in modem life.

Yet the world crisis today is basically a battle of faiths. The real strength of Communism is not its bullets and bombs, it is the militant, fanatical faith it inspires in its followers. And only a stronger faith of our own will defeat it, a faith in the value of individual freedom and democracy, the Western heritage which has its roots in Judaism, Christianity and the Bible. By leaving religion out of schools, it is argued, we have been depriving youth of the basic enduring faith and loyalty that is the foundation of our defense against the freedom-sapping tide of totalitarianism.

As for the fears of religious minorities that religion in schools will inevitably mean the teaching to many children of denominational doctrines in which they don’t believe, advocates of religious education argue that the threat to minority rights is exaggerated but where the problem does arise the desires of the majority should rule. Canada is by tradition a Christian country. Where Roman Catholics are numerous their rights are protected by separate schools. Canadian Protestant churches have claimed, in the main, that minorities have no right to deprive the majority of the privilege of teaching the religious traditions in which they believe.

This is the case for and against religion in schools.

Is it the church’s answer to religious illiteracy and the growing acceptance of materialistic philosophies? Is it democracy’s answer to the menace of Communism?

Or is it an undemocratic interference «¡tli personal liberty that will open up old sores and turn Canada into a bickering Balkans of religious factions?

We may soon know. For in the whole vast and bewildering chaos of idea and arguments there is only one certainty above dispute. It is the simple fait that, in spite of the seemingly irreconcilable nature of the controversy, religion is coming back to the public schools of Canada, Britain and the U. S. ★