“Public-school religion” is a confession of failure by the churches, says Winnipeg Baptist clergyman

LESLIE K. TARR January 26 1963


“Public-school religion” is a confession of failure by the churches, says Winnipeg Baptist clergyman

LESLIE K. TARR January 26 1963


“Public-school religion” is a confession of failure by the churches, says Winnipeg Baptist clergyman LESLIE K. TARR


THE TRADITIONAL PUBLIC-SCHOOL curriculum includes the three R's — reading, writing and arithmetic. The fourth R — religion — is an intruder that should he unceremoniously ejected.

Who says so? I do, for one, and as it happens I am not a Communist, a fellow traveler, an atheist or even an agnostic. I am an ordained Baptist minister, and a fundamentalist at that. I firmly believe the Bible is the word of Ciod. Nevertheless I am persuaded that there is no legitimate place in a public-school curriculum for preachers, priests, prayers or partisan religion.

It would be an understatement to say that there arc those who disagree with me. The advocates of religious exercises and religious instruction in the public schools are numerous. Their arguments range from the lofty grounds that our civilization has its roots in the Hebrew-C hristian tradition to the more expedient basis that children don't voluntarily attend Sunday school and hence the public school should compensate for this lack of religious training. Some urge only "religious exercises" while others go all the way and campaign for "religious instruction." By religious exercises, most provincial education acts refer to a brief Bible reading, the recitation of a prayer (usually the Lord's Prayer) or the singing of approved hymns. Religious instruction designates the more formal classroom instruction given by the teacher, a clergyman or some other authorized person.

Many ministers and church members who oppose religious instruction still favor religious exercises at the opening of the school day. I fail to see their subtle distinction. Any religious exercise worthy of the name is religious instruction. Away with both!


The advocates of religious instruction in public schools have had their heyday since early in World War II. which brought a decided step-up in the campaign to entrench religion in Canada’s public schools. Zealous church people in Saskatchewan and Alberta realized that their province's education acts made religious instruction optional for local school boards. Motivated by a commendable desire to extend knowledge of the word of Ciod, they put pressure on the school boards to provide the time during the school week. In many cases they succeeded. In Manitoba and British Columbia, too, the scope of religious exercises was enlarged in 1943 and 1944.

But the really big breakthrough came in Ontario in 1944. Premier George Drew, heading the newly elected Conservative government, announced that religious education would be offered in both public and secondary schools. Of course, there was the usual provision that a student could be exempted upon application. There was the further provision that loÄl school boards could secure exemption by making an annual application. ( Ironically, one of the first to reject religious teaching was the

school board in Forest Hill, the home of Mr. Drew. )

How docs the matter now stand in Canada’s ten provinces? In ail of them, religious exercises in the form of Bible readings, prayers or hymns arc either obligatory or optional in elementary public schools. In Newfoundland, Ontario and Quebec, religious teaching, as differentiated from mere "religious exercises,” is obligatory, and it is optional in the three prairie provinces.

I pity the school board that has to make a decision on this question in the local-option provinces. The question is apt to be resolved on the grounds of expediency and political survival rather than on the basis of principle.


A good example was provided in Winnipeg last November. Parishioners of St. Edward Confessor Roman C atholic C hurch petitioned to have a priest give religious instruction in a city high school. After several meetings, the school board voted to reject the request. The vote was announced as being eight to seven (chairman Andrew' Robertson had cast the deciding vote to break the seven-seven deadlock). Mr. Robertson informs me, however, that most of those who had voted for the petition had spoken decidedly against it. What elected official who values his political future wants to be cast in the role of seeming to oppose religion?

This reluctance to stand up for what they believe applies equally to parents. Yet parents opposed to religious teaching in schools have sometimes risked being labeled antireligious by speaking up publicly. In the Toronto suburb of North York dissenting parents not only persisted in their stand under strong criticism, but in the recent municipal elections actually succeeded in electing to the school board a majority who oppose the present system of arbitrary religious education in public schools.

It seems to me that such people arc at least clearer in their attitude than those who want to foist religious teaching on the public schools. For example, how should one define the term “Christian clergyman"?

The Manitoba act states that instruction must be given by "any Christian clergyman whose charge includes any portion of the school district, or by a person duly authorized by such clergyman, or by a teacher when so authorized.” Just try to picture the problem! It would be a major accomplishment to define to everyone's satisfaction the term. "Christian clergyman." After you have defined this term, what will you do about Jewish rabbis. Unitarian ministers. Mormon elders, and so on? Since all baptized Jehovah's Witnesses are regarded as ministers, this is the only group that could provide a teacher for each schoolroom in any city. Or would you exclude the Jewish rabbis, the Mormon elders, the Unitarian ministers or the Jehovah's Witnesses? It's not a simple matter, is it?

There's only one


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"Is the state of religion so weak that it must prey on a captive audience of children?”

answer — let’s bounce religion out of the public school! Oh, I know there will be those who will insist that I have exaggerated the picture. They would suggest that there could be no possible harm in simply reading the Bible and reciting the Lord’s Prayer during school hours. I contend that there is positive harm in such religious exercises in a public school and very little real good.

A public school is a public school — not an especially profound observation. I know, hut a pertinent one. Such a school is open to all children regardless of their religion or lack of religion. A typical C anadian school could include Roman Catholics, a wide variety ot Protestants including various evangelicals, those of the Jewish faith and possibly some Mormons or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Then there may he the children of the religiously indifferent and determinedly atheistic.

F.ven if religious exercises or religious instruction had a legitimate place in the public-school curriculum, there could he no possible readings or course that would he satisfactory to all groups. Fven the question of which version ot the Bible to read from would he an interesting one. The modern “ccumaniacs’’ who want to force us all into one religious mold display utter disregard for cherished conviction when they urge acceptance of some w'atered-down religious common denominator.

I have the distinct impression that those who want religious exercises and instruction in the public school want this if it is their kind of religion that is taught. If they lived in a country where Mohammedanism or Taoism was the prevailing religion, they might not be so insistent about compulsory religion in the school.

Is religion actually in such a weak and emaciated state that it must prey on a captive audience of impressionable public-school children? As a Christian minister, i am not proud of the picture of a classroom of children, brought together by state compulsion, obediently listening to the reading of the word of God. The gospel of C hrist needs no such props.

"Public-school religion" seems to me to have all the marks of a confession of failure on the part of the churches. All around us wc behold congregations abolishing Sunday evening services, midweek prayer meetings and adult Bible classes. The same churches, with large rolls of nominal members, are losing teenagers in droves. When I hear their plea for the retention or expansion of religious activity in the public school, it sounds like a plea to the state to do the work that the churches have failed to do.

A common complaint against the churches and ministers is that we do not really teach the Bible. A quick glance at the average Saturday church page seems to substantiate this charge, for the sermon topics will range from politics, current events, social ques-

lions and philosophic abstractions to book reviews. If the churches do not regard it as worth their w'hile to teach the Bible, then why saddle the public schools with the job?

Compulsion is foreign to the spirit of true Christianity, and it is my contention that the teaching of religion under state auspices smacks of compulsion. My special concern is that it is detrimental to the C hristian faith itself for it creates the image of a religion that must be spooned out in public-school doses. Those who love the Christian gospel do it no favor by their efforts to force it upon others through the public educational system.

And what of the teacher? Because religion is a personal matter, the teacher can hardly be expected to teach what he or she does not believe. Alter all, a public school could conceivably have teachers who are not professing Christians. Should a nonChristian teacher be required to teach religion, lead in Bible reading or recite the Lord’s Prayer? Should any teacher be subjected to possible public ridicule and certain gossip because he or she requests to be excused from leading in these religious functions?

What shall we say of the travesty made of religion when the teacher in charge asks for student assistance in locating the gospel of Luke, an incident that actually took place recently? Or what of the kindergarten teacher who failed to name even the first five books of the New Testament when appearing on a television quiz program? I do not intend to ridicule the teachers. Their religious views and the extent of their Bible knowledge is their own business. But 1 do wonder

if some public school religious exercises are not a positive "black eye" for Christianity. Sentimentalists, who for the sake of expediency are willing to sacrifice the basic principle of the separation of church and state, would do well to consider whether the benefits of most classroom religious exercises are real or imaginary.

Our schools already have an overloaded curriculum with too many frills. Parents complain about too much homework while precious school hours are devoted to social dancing and other trivialities. Let’s leave social dancing to the community clubs and Arthur Murray and leave religion to the home and the church. Then the school can be the school.

Right here is the crux of the whole matter. It is not the business of the public school to teach religion. This is the acknowledged domain of the home and the church. Let the churches get back to the job of teaching God’s word instead of fobbing the joh off on someone else. Let the churches get out and build great Bibleteaching Sunday schools for adults and children. Let them emphasize the necessity of family worship and instruction. Then there w'ill be no need to ask the public school to do our work.

All that I. as a minister, ask of the state is that the government provide an atmosphere in which all religions can function in freedom, wath favors to none and persecution of none. A vigorous Christianity will flourish under such conditions and will not need to seek the dubious advantage of compulsory religious teaching under state auspices. ★