Monday, 25 February 2013

Chouinard vs Niagara School Board: How Justice Must Work In a Broken System

Justice and the system. (image source)
At my work, I believe some people believe I'm a cynical bastard. They  probably get this idea because whenever I find any kind of problem, I tend to follow it back to another, and then to another and finally I point out that the entire system is flawed and screwed up.

I think lots of people who lean to the left in politics also have this problem and it affects our ability to work within a system that's fundamentally broken.  We get frustrated and try to change the whole system rather than leverage a broken system.  Or maybe it's just me.

This brings me to the case of Rene Chouinard vs Niagara School Board in Ontario.  The latest news in this story happened awhile back, but it's taken me awhile to figure out just how I want to react to it.  There's some serious leveraging going on here.

Tribunal considers whether atheism is a creed

Yes, that's the title of the story.  That the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal is considering whether or not atheism is a creed is the first sign that there must be something quite wrong with things; the system. I know it's terribly cliche, but let's check to see what Merriam-Webster has to say in their online definition of creed.

Now how could this be?  At first, I was rather shocked by the whole thing.  I mean, isn't this precisely what many religious apologists would like us to do?  To define atheism as yet another religionOne that rotten secularists want to jam down the throats of hapless children in our public schools?

I'm afraid Grant LaFleche of the St. Catharines Standard got it right in It’s like saying bald is a hair colour when he categorically denies that atheism is a creed.
... And deciding it is one might set a ridiculous precedent. A bit like ruling not playing hockey is a sport. 
Look, the board meant well, I am sure. But our public schools are not there to create a captive audience for evangelists. That also means it’s not a soapbox for atheists to tell kids religion is ridiculous. There are better and more appropriate venues for both — at home, churches, bookstores, Youtube — but leave the schools out of it. 
Although I have the utmost respect for Chouinard and his plight - I find the idea of religious groups handing out material at public schools unacceptable - I find that I must agree with LaFleche on this one.  I think defining atheism as a creed goes too far.  I don't agree with this playing along with the system.

But is this real or just a game of legal chicken? I cannot help to think that this entire story so far, at every turn, has served to illustrate just how biased our entire culture is to religion and how little voice non-believers really have in this country, contrary to what the religious right would have you believe.

This story reads sort of like a literary exercise in Absurdity.  In order to try to effect change, the protagonist is forced, at every step, to behave in the opposite fashion to what any naïve onlooker would expect.  Each step along the way screams out the same ironic truth - that the only way to get heard when it comes to religious matters is to be religious.  Anyone not the the god club need not voice their concerns, thank you.

I've been covering this story along the way the best I could.  But here's a short and rough sketch for the uninitiated.

It begins with an atheist father in Grimsby who didn't want the Gideons peddling their religious pamphlets to children on public school property.  Of course, he is absolutely right. Public schools should not be theological battlegrounds for the souls of children at the time and expense of taxpayers.  But here's where the battle should have been fought out and remained, but somehow, like in some twisted plot of an Hellenic tragedy of yore, it got moved.

First problem.  Why are the Gideons allowed to proselytize to little children in public schools?

After asking the Board to stop, they decided to rewrite their rules so not only the Gideons could distribute their propaganda, every religion could.  So it became even worse.

Second problem.  Why are all religions allowed to proselytize to little children in public schools?

In response to this, Chouinard decides to apply for the right to distribute atheist material alongside the other groups. Why does Rene wish to do this?  It's not to proselytize.  It's to give the Board a little of their own medicine.  The idea was they would not tolerate the distribution of such material and so would expose their lack of inclusivity and would ultimately ban distribution from all and any group.  Besides, it's worked before in America and other places.

But it turned out that not just any religion could try to indoctrinate children on their campuses, so long as these religions were listed in a book.  So much for inclusivity.  Atheism, of course wasn't listed in the book as a religion.
To decide which religious texts make the cut, Niagara school officials are instructed to follow the Ontario Multifaith Information Manual, a periodically updated book detailing the beliefs, holy books and dietary restrictions of groups ranging from Hare Krishnas to Wiccans to Rastafarians.   
As the manual does not include atheists, agnostics and all other non-believers, Mr. Chouinard’s books — Just Pretend: A Free thought Book for Children and Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist — were handily rejected.
Third problem.  In the interest of inclusivity, only religions listed in the book were allowed to influence the children.

It's here where there should have been some mechanism for Chouinard to activate. Maybe the US Office of International Religious Freedom could have helped him out?  No, I suppose they are only interested in the freedom of religious people, so I guess they'd be no good.  So Chouinard goes to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, which sounds more logical, doesn't it?  But just wait and see - it gets ironic.

As a last resort, Rene went to the tribunal to show that he is being discriminated against.  But somehow the tribunal has apparently decided not to go back to the original battle lines, but to instead fight to be allowed to distribute literature alongside other religious groups.  And to be allowed to distribute, alongside religious groups with religious agendas, to the young and impressionable minds of public school children, atheism needs to be shown to be a creed so it can qualify as a protected!
“To get in the front door, you need to show that you enjoy the benefit of a protected group,” said lawyer Derek Bell.
Because apparently you need to be a special group (read: religion) to be protected enough to be able to distribute material to children in public schools.  This seems so completely absurd to me.  The fact Chouinard must resort to this strategy... to have his Human Rights protected by this Human Rights Tribual.  Isn't this special treatment of religious ideas over other ideas part of the whole problem?

Oh the irony.

It's like the cards were stacked so squarely against us to begin with that nobody is even going to consider bringing up the real problem here, to fight the underlying battle.  Why are religious groups allowed to hand out their religious materials to children at public schools, again?  Isn't that what got us to this point in the first place?

I'll end this with an excellent comment by reader MrPopularSentiment on my post Ontario Human Rights Tribunal Hearing Begins For Grimsby Atheist Rene Chouinard vs Niagara School Board.  Please go read it in its entirety.  I may post about the dilemma his organization had at a future time.
We were having a similar-ish discussion on my local group's mailing list recently regarding the Religious Org category of registered not for profits. Basically, to become a registered NFP with CRA, you have to pick a category for your organization, and which category you pick determines what the goals of your organization should be, and therefore what your legal requirements are to maintain registration (for example, foundations have disbursement quotas, etc). Religious Orgs do not have to prove that they benefit society in any way. Instead, their requirement is that they be engaged in the "promotion of religion." This, in and of itself, is considered sufficiently worthwhile to Canadian society that our taxpayers should be supporting its efforts.
That's somewhat problematic, obviously, but what's even worse is that the organization must be promoting a qualifying religion, and there's a list of which religions are acceptable. Atheism, obviously, is not on it. So what ended up having in CFI's case, for example, is that they registered as an educational charity instead. 
But that leaves us with a difficult issue - do we want atheism to be on that list, or not? Are we willing to fight for atheism to be considered a religion in Canada so that we can not be discriminated against in cases like this and when forming community organizations?
 ... snip...snip...
... But for practical purposes, if we want to have the same advantages and access to help that religious organizations have when building our communities and supporting our members, I kinda feel like we have to just swallow that pill. It's why I choose to define "religion" as "worldview." Makes it far more palatable ;) 
Anyways, once we deal with our own internal nay-sayers, I actually think that our victory in convincing the Canadian government that atheism is a religion would come pretty quickly and easily.
I can really see where he is coming from on this and I don't blame his organization at all.  Ultimately, the system is so ill-equipped for the secular, that this story and the plight of the Chouinard family calls attention to the absurd measures one is forced to take to get one's voice heard - to protect one's Human Rights.

Meanwhile, LaFleche concluded his opinion piece with this.
If we are really lucky, the tribunal will rule against Chouinard and tell the board to scrap its policy and keep sectarian interests out of our schools.
Win-win. One can only hope for the sake of the Chouinards and a better system.


  1. You know what? Tin-foil hats don't suit me--I'm too kewlz--but here goes. . . This this is exactly the kind of situation that I attribute to this false sense of interfaith dialogue that has fostered an environment of desperation and social marginalisation for the non-believers.

    Rather than resolving their differences and making their ideologies a bit more open, tolerant and accepting of an ever-evolving social canvas that might require adaptation, these religious camps have formed a superficial cabal that conveniently uses government to further its own interests and paradigm setting while also acquiring protection from scrutiny. They're essentially controlling how the game table is set up for the rest. And the unity? Well, they form this insidious union to take down those 'vile non-believers' by luring the opposition into their own paradigm, where the opposition is doomed to be trivialised. We shouldn't have to play at their footing -- no one should, and yet. . . Ah. Nevermind.

  2. GodlessPoutine2 March 2013 at 23:28

    Thanks for the comment. Yup. The frustration is that the more we "play in their system" the more we ultimately validate it. Ah well.

  3. GodlessPoutine2 March 2013 at 23:29

    You're a she? No problem. I can begin using that pronoun for you if you like. Thanks for commenting!

  4. We met at Eschaton! I was one of the people wearing the volunteer shirts. That's actually how I found your blog, and I'm very much enjoying it :)

  5. GodlessPoutine5 March 2013 at 15:38

    Wow! Thanks for your comment!

  6. Thanks for the coverage of this issue. We're fighting nearly the exact same battle here in BC against the Chilliwack (and eventually Abbotsford) School District(s), just a year or two behind the Chouinards. Check out for our latest updates.

    On the topic at hand, I think it's worth distinguishing atheism and Secular Humanism here. While atheism shares few characteristics with religion (as LaFleche points out), Humanism is closer and may count under some definitions (which admittedly tend to be more academic). Humanism does attempt to posit a few basic moral points (which are non-dogmatic) and attempts to build a community around them. In my research, I've come across one Supreme Court case where evidence was presented that Humanism could be considered a religious viewpoint, meriting equal protection. Either way though, the courts have well established that Section 2a of the Charter protects non-belief as much as it protects belief.

  7. Thanks for your comment, Ian. I'll follow your site for more updates. Sounds like you have quite a battle on your hands. Let me know if there is anything I can do for you with my blog!


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