COVER

SECULAR CLASS

In public schools, religion is all but invisible

DALE EISLER December 15 1997
COVER

SECULAR CLASS

In public schools, religion is all but invisible

DALE EISLER December 15 1997

SECULAR CLASS

In public schools, religion is all but invisible

DALE EISLER

It was a fleeting instance of discomfort, but it spoke volumes. Last week, a freewheeling discussion of life in Mexico ground to a halt when a Grade 7 student in a Calgary classroom asked Mario Melendez what he did for a living. Melendez, a resident of Mexico City, answered that he was a Christian who did work to help the needy, and the students fell silent. “Clearly they felt uncomfortable with the idea of Christianity and religion being mentioned,” says Dale Backlin, principal of the Glenmore Christian Academy in Calgary, who brought Melendez to the public school for a social studies program. “It was as if they didn’t know what to say.”

For many, this kind of reaction to the subject of Christianity is hardly surprising. In an effort not to offend the sensitivities of an ever more ethnically and religiously diverse student population, most public schools have all but expunged the notion of God and religion from the school environment. In April, an Ontario court ruled that Muslim students were not being discriminated against because Islamic holy days are not recognized as school holidays. At the same time, it determined that Christmas and Easter were “secular pause days” that are now referred to as winter and spring breaks.

“Religion has become the taboo subject that sex used to be,” says Lois Sweet, author of God in the Classroom, a book that calls for an open discussion of religion as part of the curriculum. Initially concerned that the growth in private religious schools would undermine the public system, Sweet discovered that religion has become such a contentious subject that public schools have opted to ignore the spiritual side of life. “I consider it an important area of study,” says Sweet. “We can’t understand our neighbors unless we understand their religion and values.”

Rather than recognize religious beliefs as a critical component to society, many school boards have preferred to take the safe route. In Calgary, Christmas pageants are a thing of the past. “You don’t want to offend non-Christian students,” says one high-schoolteacher, “you might get one of the teachers dressing up like Santa, but that’s about the extent of it.” In an attempt to deal with an increasingly diverse student population, the board’s policy on religion is currently under review. Says Jim Dean, superintendent of school, parent and students services with the Calgary public board: “Given who we serve, it’s only natural that public education has become more secular.”

Others have responded to diversity in a different fashion. At Winnipeg’s Stevenson School, plans are in full swing for this year’s Christmas concert. It will include an Indian-Sri Lankan festival song, a Chinese new year song, a Hanukkah song, The Huron Carol, as well as Christian carols. “Our parents don’t want a generic Rudolph the RedNose Reindeer concert,” says teacher Douglas Hallstead. “They get enough of that at the malls.”

But beyond the holiday season, religion is virtually invisible in most public schools. Such a secular approach, where different views are avoided rather than discussed, makes little sense to some edu-

cators. Ken Badley of Edmonton, who has taught at both public and religious schools and written extensively on the issue of religion in education, maintains that a double standard is being applied. ‘We’re supposed to celebrate our linguistic and racial differences,” says Badley. “But when it comes to religion, we pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Others argue that religious beliefs are often deeply held, and therefore the subject is divisive. “History has taught us that religions are not tolerant of each other,” says University of Manitoba education professor Benjamin Levin. “It’s hard to convince people who believe their religious beliefs are the path to salvation that they should accept someone who doesn’t share that view.” Adds Levin: “Politics also tends to be kept out of schools. The system has never handled controversy very well.”

For a growing number of parents, home schooling has become the option to a system they believe fails to reflect even generic religious principles. In Canada, approximately 50,000 students are taught at home, a number that has grown from 2,000 in 1979. And, says Wendy Priesnitz, head of the Canadian Alliance of Home Schoolers, “the fastest growing segment of home schoolers is doing it for religious reasons.” At the same time, the number of independent religious schools in Canada has doubled since 1970. “I think many parents are dismayed at the kinds of things that are expected to be taught in public schools, such as the notion of abortion,” says John Vanasselt, director of communications at the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools. “Many people are searching for something they can’t find in the public schools.” And as long as public schools persist in avoiding all discussion of God and religion, that number is bound to increase.

SANDRA FARRAN

D’ARCYJENISH