Free Gideon Bible handouts face another public school ban despite pressure

Colin Perkel, The Canadian Press
Associated Press

TORONTO - An expected ban on the free distribution of Gideon Bibles at public schools in a southern Ontario school district has angered those who see the decision as an atheist attack on religious values and children.

Despite vocal support in favour of continuing the decades-old practice, the Bluewater District School Board is set to end the free handouts after its policy committee voted this week.

"It is an atheist thing and they're doing harm to the children," Dorothy Adams, a former social worker in Hanover, Ont., said Wednesday.

"What are we trying to do: Destroy our children?"

As with many other schools, parents of Grade 5 students at the Bluewater board receive a permission slip for the school to give their children a Gideon Bible.

After months of considering the issue, which has stirred passions and even human-rights challenges in Canada, the board's policy committee voted 5-3 on Tuesday to ban distribution of all religious materials at its 53 schools.

The committee, comprising most of the board's 11 trustees, rejected a proposal that would have allowed any religious organization to hand out literature.

Trustee Terry Bell, who supports a ban, said allowing religious materials is fraught territory.

"There are some phrases in the Bible that discriminate against those people who are gay; some religions demean women," Bell said.

"That's not something our mission and vision statement will endorse."

The board's chairwoman Jan Johnstone, who proposed the ban motion, said board counsel had advised an end to the handouts because of the potential for legal challenges.

In addition, she said, trying to manage handouts if the practice was opened up to any religion would prove a drain on already stretched resources.

Gideons International, an evangelical Protestant association based in Nashville, Tenn., has been placing its Bibles — comprising a New Testament plus the books of Psalms and Proverbs from the Old Testament — in Canadian public schools since 1936.

Several boards, including some of Ontario's largest, have long discontinued the practice; others, such as the Iqaluit district, have done so more recently.

One district in Nunavut did opt late last year to allow Gideon distribution for the first time, while the largest board in Prince Edward Island said in January the practice could continue despite a parental complaint.

After Bluewater began a review in light of parent's complaint, thousands signed a petition urging the board to allow the Gideon Bibles.

Scores of people clutching Gideon Bibles jammed meetings, and some trustees said they had been flooded with emails, calls and letters from those upset by a possible ban.

Kevin Larson, chairman of the board's policy committee, said he was disappointed by the decision.

"In my area, I don't think there's a single person asking me to discontinue the practice," Larson said from Port Elgin, Ont.

"I believe open to all is the way we should be going with the increasing diversity in the world."

Bluewater's board is expected to adopt the committee's ban recommendation when it meets April 17.

In the interim, Adams said Gideon supporters would keep up their fight in an effort to stave off the ban.

"We believe in the children and bringing up children to have a happy life," Adams said.

"If they had the Lord in their life, they wouldn't be tempted by a lot of the things that are out there."