Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Rene Chouinard Wins Human Rights Tribunal Case! No Religious Material Distribution Allowed at Niagara Public Schools!

Rene Chouinard
Last week, I contacted Rene Chouinard, the Grimsby Ontario father of two children who had finally appeared in front of the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, three years after vowing to fight the Niagara Public School Board's decision to allow the distribution of Gideon Bibles and other religious material on school grounds.

For those who haven't heard of the case they can read all about it here on my blog.

On Friday, we had a good 45 minute talk on Skype. Rene cleared up a misconception I had about his case relying on atheism being a creed - it turns out it was the Board that was arguing that Chouinard would only be capable of arguing discrimination if he had a creed to be discriminated against and since he didn't, he wasn't a victim.

There was some discussion in the hearing about different meanings of the word creed and that it need not be a statement of religious belief, but rather a statement of belief about religion - a metaphysical position if you will.

Well, Rene also told me my timing was really good. Rumour had it that the person who was presiding over the case was looking to change jobs and the only way to clear themselves from their current position was to finish their case load. The inside chatter was that a ruling was imminent - as in within days or weeks.

Well, I never could have guessed it would be today!

I got a happy e-mail from Rene about an hour ago along with a link to the ruling.

In short, he won!

The full ruling is here and judging by my first glances at it, it's very reasonable.  I cannot wait to see the media response.

R.C. v. District School Board of Niagara, 2013 HRTO 1382 (CanLII)

Let's cut to the chase now, shall we?
[77]        The Tribunal orders as follows:
1.  Both Applications are allowed. 
2.  Board policy G-22 as it now reads cannot be relied upon by the Board. 
3.  Unless it develops a new policy consistent with the Code principles set out in this Decision, the Board shall not permit the distribution of religious publications in its schools. 
4.  If the Board intends to develop a new policy permitting distribution of creed and religious publications in its schools, it shall finalize the policy within six months, and provide a copy of the new policy to the applicants and intervenors. 
5.  If any party to this case believes that the new policy or practices under it are inconsistent with the Code, it may write to the Registrar no later than one year from the date of this Decision and request that I decide the issue. 
6.  I shall remain seized of these Applications for the purpose of dealing with disputes about any new Board policy raised with the Registrar within one year of today’s date.
Or in more (beautiful) detail:
[74]        For these reasons, I find that the Board’s 2010 policy is also contrary to the Code, and will order a remedy to promote compliance with the Code. The decision about whether and how to redesign the policy should be that of the Board, the elected body that decides upon educational policy in Niagara. It is the Board’s choice whether to end the practice of distributing religious literature or to design a new policy that complies with this Decision and to decide upon the details of the policy. 
[75]        In view of the discrimination found in this Decision, policy G-22 will be declared invalid. The Tribunal’s Order will provide that no distribution of religious materials shall take place in the Board’s schools unless the Board designs a new policy consistent with the Code principles set out in this Decision. In order to ensure that any new policy complies with the Code, the Order will provide the Board with six months to develop any new policy and provide it to the applicants and intervenors. I will remain seized for one year to deal with any disputes about whether any new policy complies with the Code. This will facilitate and promote the primary place of local democratically elected representatives while ensuring that a remedy at the Tribunal is available in an expeditious manner if any party believes there continues to be discrimination.
The adjudicator, David A. Wright has a few brilliant statements in his judgement. I'll just paste a few here.
I understand that some parents and students may not agree with some of the content of atheist literature like “Just Pretend”. However, the applicant and others do not agree with some of the content of the Gideon Bible. If the Board decides to have a policy permitting distribution of religious literature, it must be prepared to accept that some parents and students might object to materials that others, with parental permission, are receiving. If it is prepared to distribute permission forms proposing the distribution of Christian texts to committed atheists, it must also be prepared to distribute permission forms proposing the distribution of atheist texts to religious Christians. 
Further it was judged that although the Board said it wanted to be inclusive of all religions, it actually made no effort at all to encourage any religion save the Gideons:
The Council of Imams asked, during the school year, to send religious material to be distributed in the schools. The Board responded two months later, in the summer, with a link to the policy, which is itself vague, and no information as to how to actually provide the materials as requested. Whether intentional or not, a reasonable reading of the e-mail would lead a reader to believe that the Board was not interested in encouraging or even facilitating the distribution of materials other than the Gideon Bible and the Board did not take the opportunity to ensure that there was more than one creed’s materials distributed in the schools.
As for whether or not Chouinard has a creed that can be discriminated against, the adjudicator wisely determined that it didn't actually matter whether or not atheism was a creed. It was still discrimination, plain and simple. This is the best possible outcome we could ever ask for because it means atheists do not need to be reduce their philosophical positions down to the level of just another religion to acquire the same basic human rights protections as religious people.
The respondent submits that atheism is a not a creed, and that the Application should be dismissed on the basis that the Code does not protect against discrimination because a person is atheist. The applicant and the CCLA take the position that atheism is a creed. The Commission takes the position that the issue need not be decided, because even if atheism is not a creed, discrimination against a person who does not have a creed is included in the protection against discrimination because of creed. The Commission notes that it is revising its policy on creed and does not ask that the Tribunal adopt the definition of creed in its 1996 Policy on creed and the accommodation of religious observances.
I'll no doubt read this ruling again and again because, as far as I can tell based on my first quick read-through, it's absolutely brilliant. It appears, at first glance at least, to be a clear and decisive victory for everyone who's interested in keeping religion out of our public schools.

You need to read it yourself!

Children at Kasese Humanist School
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  1. Hello, I think the priority should be forbidding the propagation of harmful religious materials.

    The message "God loves each of you unconditionally" alone is unlikely to have detrimental consequences for society and the kids.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  2. Do you think this could be used against the Chilliwack (BC) School Board distributing bibles in schools as well?


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