Religious values do have a place in the public school system, a lawyer for the embattled Surrey school board argued last month before the B.C. Court of Appeal. John Dives presented his arguments at a three-day hearing June 21 – 23.
The school board is appealing a 1998 decision by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Mary Saunders, who ordered the board to reconsider its rejection of three books, written for children aged six and thereabouts, that portray same-sex couples.
Dives argued that Justice Saunders misinterpreted the School Act when she said that the school board could not “implement a decision made upon religious views.”
The intent behind the School Act, said Dives, was to prevent specific religions from being imposed on the students. He added that parents ought to have the right to decide which books are appropriate for their children, and that the board had acted on parents’ behalf.
Dives cited affidavits from local members of the Sikh, Hindu and Catholic religions who said the books’ depiction of same-sex relationships contradicted their beliefs. “This is something that cuts across many religions, and cannot be said to be sectarian in nature,” he said.
Lawyer Joe Arvay, representing gay kindergarten teacher James Chamberlain and four others who filed suit against the board in the 1998 case, said the School Act permits the board to take religious values into consideration when their decisions do not affect other students.
For example, he said, the board may let a Sikh student wear the kirpan, or ceremonial dagger, despite laws forbidding weapons on school property, because the decision does not affect his classmates. “Accommodating that child’s beliefs does not impose on the other children,” he said.
But by refusing to approve the three books in question for classroom use, the school board had discriminated against the children of same-sex parents and suggested that their parents “may be bad,” Arvay said.
One of the three judges presiding over the case chided Arvay for saying repeatedly that the school board had “banned” the books in question. She said the term was “too strong,” noting that the books are available in some school libraries, and that the board only refused to approve their use in a classroom setting.
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Archdiocese of Vancouver are intervening on the school board’s behalf. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association and EGALE (Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere) Canada Inc. intervened on behalf of Chamberlain and the other complainants.
A final decision is not expected until sometime next year.
With files from The Leader