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Canadian Supreme Court ruling: 

Teaching about same-sex parenting in public schools

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Quotations:

bullet"The family is one of the most fundamental expressions of our humanity, and families in all their myriad forms are entitled to constitutional protection. Children with lesbian or gay family-members are harmed by the deliberate exclusion of their families from the curriculum at a time when all their other classmates are learning about their families." Susan Ursel, lawyer for "Families in Partnership" before the Canadian Supreme Court. 1
bullet"This [book banning] is not about intolerance. It is about 5 to 6 year old children. The appellants want to be able to teach about homosexual families, devoid of moral content. But you can't pretend that these books have no moral content. They do, and parents have a right to teach their own moral code....The intention of the books is proselytizing. I'm not suggesting recruitment, but putting forward a worldview of the morality of this kind of relationship that is inconsistent with many people's moral perspective." John Dives, lawyer for the Surrey School Board. 1
bullet"If any family form of which any religious group disapproves can be excluded from the curriculum, the list of approved families may be quite short." Canadian Civil Liberties Association. 1

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About rights cases in North American courts:

It would seem that many decisions by the Supreme Courts of both the U.S. and Canada relate to a conflict of rights -- as the Canadian Supreme Court wrote in this case: an "Accommodation or Balancing Between Competing Interests" is required. 1 For example:

bulletThe right of a logging company to pursue its profit-making objectives by building an access road through lands considered sacred by Native people.
bulletThe right of followers of a syncretistic religion, Santeria, to kill chickens and other small animals during their religious services, in opposition to revulsion at the idea of animal sacrifice by many Florida citizens.
bulletGranting equal rights and protections to gays and lesbians, in opposition to those who feel -- on religious grounds -- that homosexuals should be legally discriminated against, and that the heterosexual majority should be given special privileges.

In 2002-DEC-20, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on one of these civil rights matters. The case involved a conflict between:

bulletA minority of teachers, parents, and others in Surrey, BC, who wanted positive images of same-sex committed relationships and parenting to be taught to kindergarten children in the public schools, and
bulletA large majority of Surrey parents and others who, largely for religious reasons, wanted the children in the local public school to isolated from discussion of same-sex family structures in the public schools.

Surrey is "a sprawling, rapidly growing city of 350,000 southeast of Vancouver. Approximately one-half of [its]... residents are members of a racial or ethnic minority." 3 Surrey is known for a high concentration of incidences involving religious intolerance.

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Book banning by the Surrey School Board:

In 1997, teacher James Chamberlain wanted to use three books in his Kindergarten and Grade One classes as resources. They describe same-sex couples who are raising children. The books were "Asha's Mums," 7 "One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dads, Blue Dads" 8 and "Belinda's Bouquet." 9 The books had not been pre-approved by the provincial Ministry of Education, so Chamberlain had to apply to the Surrey School Board for approval to use them. "The books feature children who have two moms or two dads. The parents from Chamberlain's classroom read the books and made a presentation to the school board in favor of their use. Seventeen of twenty families from Chamberlain's classroom signed a petition which they presented to the trustees asking for the books to be approved. The Board refused to allow the books to be used anywhere in the District because there were parents who complained that their religious beliefs would be offended by acknowledging in the classroom that there are children who have same gender parents." The vote was 4 to 2. Their decision resulted in about 5,000 letters supporting the ban, and about 1,000 in opposition. 10 In a public opinion poll conducted by Campbell Goodell Traynor Consultants Ltd. on behalf of school board lawyers, 61% of area adults were found to agree that the "three proposed books dealing with same- sex couples should not be used in kindergarten and grade 1 classrooms under any circumstances." 14

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The court case Chamberlain et al v. Surrey School Board:

Five teachers and Rosamund Elwin, author of Asha's Mums, initiated a lawsuit. "Hindus, Sikhs, Catholics and Protestants are among those who...filed 65 affidavits in the Supreme Court in support of the school board’s decision. One affidavit was submitted by 32 evangelical churches. As a parent of young children, says Surrey Alliance pastor Garry Bruce, he wants to take the responsibility himself for teaching his children about lifestyles. 'I don’t want to give the responsibility to the teachers'." 15

The trial judge ruled that the Board's ban breached the School Act which required the schools to be run on "strictly secular" and not "significantly influenced by religious considerations". The School Board's costs, including a substantial award to the plaintiffs, exceeded $500,000 CDN by this time. The Board successfully appealed to the BC Court of Appeal in 1999. That court delivered an ambiguous ruling that although the board refused to approve the books for general classroom use, that the books could, if available in school libraries, be used on an as-needed basis in the professional judgment of teachers. 1

Education Minister Paul Ramsay was concerned about the harassment of gay students, and children of gay parents, in B.C. schools. He warned the school board trustees that he would not allow further intolerance by them. This prompted thirty Baptist, Pentecostal and Lutheran churches in his Prince George riding to launch a petition for his recall. They criticized him as being "pro-gay" and "anti-family." 6

Supported by the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and other groups, the petitioners appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which heard the case on 2002-JUN-12.

In a 7 to 2 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada overruled the lower court's ruling. They decided that the need for tolerance and an understanding of diversity outweighed the desires of the parents and school board trustees. Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote, in part: "Parental views, however important, cannot override the imperative placed upon the British Columbia public schools to mirror the diversity of the community and teach tolerance and understanding of difference." 11 They decided that in a conflict between those who would marginalize and discriminate against same-sex committed relationships, and those who would support the right of same-sex families to coexist alongside opposite-sex families, that the school board should teach inclusiveness and diversity. The court ruled that the school board "violated the principles of secularism and tolerance" implicit in Section 76 of British Columbia's School Act, which requires them to provide a "secular education." The court argued that "Section 76 does not limit in any way the freedom of parents and board members to adhere to a religious doctrine that condemns homosexuality. [However, the law]... "does prohibit the translation of such doctrine into policy decisions by the board, to the extent that they reflect a denial of the validity of other points of view." Chief Justice McLachlin wrote: "Instead of proceeding on the basis of respect for all types of families, the board proceeded on an exclusionary philosophy, acting on the concern of certain parents about the morality of same-sex relationships, without considering the interest of same-sex parented families and the children who belong to them in receiving equal recognition and respect in the school system....Freedom of religion is not diminished, but is safeguarded, by the state's abstention from favoring or promoting any specific religious creed." 11 The court has ordered the school board to reconsider its decision. Some has speculated that the board will review the books during 2003, conclude that the books are simply not age-appropriate for students in kindergarten and Grade 1, and vote to continue the ban.

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Reactions by conservative Christian groups:

These groups feel that since most parents in the area are opposed to tolerance towards, and equal recognition of, same-sex committed relationships, that their school board should be allowed to insulate their children from information on those relationships.

bulletJanet Epp Buckingham, spokesperson for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, a conservative Christian group, said: "The result of the majority decision is that if religious parents have moral objections to material taught in schools, there is no room for them to have any meaningful accommodation. The only accommodation the chief justice mentions for religious parents is the option of leaving the public system altogether. This is not an acceptable option if public schools are to be welcoming to all." 11
bulletThe Catholic Civil Rights League wrote that "the court's reasoning fails to recognize that the allowance of such materials likewise offends others in a pluralistic society, who have reason to expect that their views will not be trumped by the promotion of gay parenting relationships by gay-activist educators as normative." 11
bulletAnna Marie White, spokesperson for the Fundamentalist Christian group, Focus on the Family Canada, said, "Once again, the rights of parents have been steamrolled by an activist judiciary showing complete intolerance for the views of the many Canadians with deeply held religious convictions. With this ruling, the Supreme Court has declared that regardless of significant parental concern, their children will be subject to an unwelcome and complex sexual issue." Noting that the provincial government has recently included more parental involvement in the school system, she said: "This decision strikes directly against that principle. We urge the provincial government to immediately amend the School Act to ensure that the values held by many parents that they teach at home are not being contradicted in the classroom." 11
bulletSurrey parent Linda Rasmussen, past head of the Canadian Family Action Coalition's B.C. chapter, and a parent in Surrey said: "I'm very disappointed at our court system. If they start pressing this kind of alternative family that is not considered right by Sikhs, Muslims, etc., I don’t think parents will hesitate to move them to private schools so they do have more say in what goes on in the classroom." 16

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Reaction by other groups:

bulletJohn Fisher, spokesperson Equality for Gays and Lesbians Everywhere (EGALE) said: "The court also concluded 'tolerance is always age-appropriate.' The Supreme Court of Canada today ruled that learning about difference actually enhances children's education, that kids benefit when they learn respect for those who are different." 12
bulletIn a statement, Fisher wrote: "The court today has affirmed the right of children in same-sex parented families to see themselves and their families reflected in the school curriculum. This is an unequivocal victory not only for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Canadians and their families, but for all Canadians, in that it affirms the right of children to a bias-free curriculum that teaches the values of equality, tolerance and respect for diversity that we as a society hold so dear." 13
bulletAdrian Telford, spokesperson for Heterosexuals Exposing Paranoia (HEP) -- a local group which was created to fight the book ban said: "It's about the kids that have two moms or two dads and them not feeling that they can share that. That’s always what was in my mind ... was those little kids sitting there, and how the board never, ever thought about that. All they thought about was the parents that were opposed to it."
bulletThe B.C. Teachers’ Federation (BCTF) "has called on Surrey school trustees to work with teachers to ensure that the decision is brought to fruition in the classroom." 16
bulletJames Chamberlain, the teacher who originally brought the books before the board, simply said that he is anxious to teach about acceptance in his classroom.
bulletMurray Warren, a Grade 3 teacher in Coquitlam and a member of the Gay and Lesbian Educators of B.C. said that the court's decison: "...sends a clear message to school boards across the country that every child and family deserves to be treated with respect and equality and dignity. It sends a clear message that families who have two moms [or] two dads, children who have come from same-gender parent families, are just as important as any other kinds of families." 17

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References used:

  1. "Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36," Text of the Supreme Court decision, 2002-DEC-20, at: http://www.lexum.umontreal.ca/
  2. John Fisher, "Surrey hearing - Supreme Court of Canada," Egale, at: http://www.galebc.org/bookbanreport.htm
  3. Peter Caulfield, "B.C. community condemns murder of Sikh," The Canadian Jewish News, 1998-APR-30, at: http://www.cjnews.com/
  4. Nrinder Nindy Kaur Nann, "A community divided?," The Peak, 1997-JAN-27, at: http://www.peak.sfu.ca/the-peak/
  5. "Denial of Parole to 'Surrey Skinheads' responsible for the murder of a Sikh Cleric: Nirmal Singh Gill," at: http://www.petitiononline.com/Gill/
  6. Noel Wright, "Battling the tyrants of the mind" online at: Committee for the Open Debate on the Holocaust (CODOH), a Holocaust denial group, at: http://www.codoh.com/newrevoices/
  7. Rosamund Elwin & Michele Paulse, "Asha's Mums," Women's Press, (2000). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  8. Johnny Valentine, "One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads," Alyson Publications (1994). Read reviews or order this book
  9. Leslea Newman, "Belinda's Bouquet," Alyson Publications, (1991). Read reviews or try to obtain this out of print book. Another, more popular, book by Newman is in print and is readily available: "Heather Has Two Mommies," Alyson Publications, (10th anniversary edition, 2000-JUN). Read reviews or order this book
  10. "Top Court To Hear Surrey Book Banning Case," Gay and Lesbian Educators of B.C. (GALE-BC), at: http://www.galebc.org/bookban.htm
  11. Art Moore, "Law of the land: Canada OKs pro-'gay' books for kids. Parental views cannot override imperative of tolerance, diversity." WorldNetDaily, 2002-DEC-28, at: http://wnd.com/news/article.asp
  12. "Supreme Court says B.C. school board wrong to ban same-sex books," Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, 2002-DEC-20, at: http://www.cbc.ca/stories/
  13. Ben Thompson, "Banning Gay Books On Religious Grounds Wrong Supreme Court Of Canada Tells School," 2002-DEC-20, Lesbian and Gay Equality Project, at: http://www.equality.org.za/news/
  14. "BC Supreme Court nixes school ban of homosexual pushing books for kids,"
    Lifestyle Daily News, 1998-DEC-17, at: http://www.lifesite.net/ldn/
  15. Debra Fieguth , "Surrey school board taken to court over gay-parent books. Five- and six-year-olds don’t need to hear about same-sex parenting in classrooms, board argues." Christian Week, at:  http://www.christianweek.org/
  16. Sheila Reynolds, "Books split opinion," The Surrey Leader, 2002-DEC-20, at: http://www.surreyleader.com/portals-code
  17. Wendy McLellan, "Court strikes down gay-book ban. Surrey School Board wrong to exclude three tomes from classroom," Canada.com, 2002-DEC-22, at: http://www.canada.com/

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 Additional references:

bullet

Library News of the British Columbia Teacher-Librarians' Association maintains an extensive list of hyperlinks concerning the Supreme Court of Canada decision at: http://www.bctf.bc.ca/psas/BCTLA/news.html

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Copyright © 2002 by the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2002-DEC-28
Compiler: B.A. Robinson

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