Synopsis: CFI Canada attempts to work within Chilliwack School District’s policy to circulate a secular text to Grade 5 students and is blocked in a process which lacks transparency and public accountability. Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality is, in effect, banned by the same officials who allow Gideon Bibles to be circulated.
As a registered educational charity, CFIC’s mandate is to provide education and training to the public in the application of skeptical, secular, rational and humanistic inquiry through conferences, symposia, lectures, published works and the maintenance of a library. As a project to provide a critical thinking educational resource to the public, CFIC’s education committee determined that it would like to provide Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality to students.
Recognizing the opportunity to provide the printed version of The Magic of Reality to a population of students with a demonstrated need for access to an age-appropriate, science-based critical thinking resources, CFIC determined that we would approach the Chilliwack School District – a community where Gideon Bibles have been distributed to Grade 5 students for many years. Following an exhaustive attempt by CFI Canada to work with BC’s Chilliwack School District #33 to provide educational, critical thinking resources to students in their area, CFI Canada has received a letter from the Superintendent of Schools stating,
Thanks you for your continued interest in providing the resource, The Magic of Reality to the Chillwack School District. As per my last correspondence, according to local school policy, the Superintendent reviews all requests for the distribution of materials.
Further to my letter dated January 7, 2015, I have reviewed the resource The Magic of Reality, which you kindly provided. The resource does not meet some of the local Administrative Regulations the district has that provide guidance in the selection of learning resources. Therefore, this resource is not approved for distribution in the Chilliwack School District.
Despite CFIC’s attempts to work within the School District’s policies and procedures dating back to November 2014, CFIC’s attempt to fulfill its mandate has been declined. We are providing documentation of our process to work within the Chilliwack School District’s process for public input.
Why Chilliwack? Gideon Bible Backgrounder
The Chilliwack School District has a long history of promoting Gideon Bible distribution, despite community opposition to that activity. In October of 2012, local parents objected to Gideon Bible distribution with complaints to the provincial Education Minister. Over a period spanning 2012 and 2013, the School District unanimously approved a policy which would allow the distribution of Gideon bibles. The policy states:
Recognized charitable organizations and other organizations having educational or community service attributes may be authorized by the superintendent of schools or the superintendent’s delegate to have information or materials distributed.
The BC Humanists Association and the BC Civil Liberties Association expressed at that time a concern that the distribution of bibles in public schools contravenes Section 76 of the B. C. School Act. That Act requires schools to be secular.
The CFIC Education Committee determined that working within the District’s policy framework as a recognized charitable organization would be a reasonable test of the District’s process and would be a proud opportunity for CFIC to provide an excellent educational resource to BC students. Kevin Smith, CFIC’s Board Chair said, “You never know where the next Darwin or Dawkins might come from. Wouldn’t it be terrific to have motivated a young mind to great scientific achievements!”
Video Perspective: An Interview with Rene Chouinard Of Unbelievable Niagara
CFIC’s Experience In Chilliwack
On November 27, 2014, CFI Canada sent a letter ( Centre For Inquiry Canada Letter to School District Nov 27) to the School Board Chair listed on the Chilliwack’s website, Mr. Walter Krahn. Our offer was to provide Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality to Grade 5 students over the March Break. It was our perspective that providing the invitation to work together in November provided the School Board with plenty of time to conduct any internal process and reply to our offer in January.
Mr. Krahn did not reply to our letter; during a follow-up call to the School District, we learned that Mr. Krahn was no longer the Chair of the School District. CFIC’s letter appeared to have been lost in the transitions. We forwarded a copy of our letter to provide to the new school Board Chair on January 6, 2015.
On January 7th, 2015, CFIC received a letter ( Letter to Centre for Inquiry From Chilliwack January 7 2015 ) signed by the Superintendent of Schools, Evelyn Novak stating simply,
Thank you for your interest in sharing the resource, The Magic of Reality, with the Chilliwack School District. According to local school policy, the Superintendent reviews all requests for the distribution of materials.
This resource is not approved by the British Columbia Ministry of Education and in my perception does not support the Prescribed Learning Outcomes and the intentions of the curriculum. Therefore, it is not be approved for distribution.
Concerned that a summary decision to reject our proposal had been issued within a 24-hour period citing the BC Ministry of Education’s Prescribed Learning Outcomes and curriculum, CFI Canada investigated these references and issued a reply ( Chilliwack School Board From CFI Canada January 29 ) to Ms. Novak on January 29, 2015 wherein CFIC provided our perspective on the curriculum and Prescribed Learning Outcomes. We also requested clarification regarding the Superintendent’s decision regarding The Magic Of Reality. Specific and important questions CFIC asked included:
1) whether the Superintendent was able to provide documentation relating to approval of resources by the BC Ministry of Education; the Superintendent had informed CFIC that the book was not approved by the Ministry and we wanted to understand the process that would achieve approval
2) the criteria used to evaluate The Magic of Reality and whether the Superintendent had indeed read the book which she had decided did not meet the policy guidelines she had cited.
On February 2, 2015, the Superintendent requested, through her staff, a copy of The Magic of Reality for a “more thorough review”. CFIC Board Chair Kevin Smith arranged for a copy of The Magic of Reality to be shipped to the Superintendent.
On February 26, CFIC received a second rejection of The Magic of Reality via letter ( Letter to Centre for Inquiry Feb 2015 26 )stating:
Thank you for your continued interest in providing the resource, The Magic of Reality to the Chilliwack School District. As per my last correspondence, according to local school policy, the Superintendent reviews all requests for the distribution of materials.
Further to my letter dated January 7, 2015, I have reviewed the resource
The Magic of Reality, which you kindly provided. The resource does not meet some of the local Administrative Regulations the district has that provide guidance in the selection of learning resources. Therefore, this resource is not approved for distribution in the Chilliwack School District.
Concerned that the Superintendent had so far:
1) Failed to provide clarification regarding her comments about resource approval by the BC Ministry of Education which she had cited
2) Failed to confirm whether she had actually reviewed the resource she rejected
3) Failed to provide details of the criteria used to review the resource
4) Introduced a new term “local Administrative Regulations” not previously indicated in the Superintendent’s correspondence to CFI Canada
CFIC decided that we would again request ( Chilliwack School Board March 2) details regarding the process and criteria used to block Richard Dawkins The Magic of Reality from reaching students in Chilliwack BC. In our letter, dated March 2, 2015 to the Superintendent CFIC said,
Ms. Novak, we expect that the Chilliwack Board – School District #33 is committed to transparency in its operations and we are confident that our request for this information is acceptable to an organization that is motivated to be publicly accountable for its decisions and actions.
We received a reply to our request on March 6, 2015:
We note that despite receiving these documents, CFIC has not been provided with specific information regarding the local Administrative Regulations which The Magic of Reality did not, in the Superintendent’s view, satisfy; nor were we provided with details regarding the process. We have no evidence of what specific criteria resulted in a decision that The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins did not satisfy the various rules and regulations cited by the Superintendent.
On March 26th, CFI Canada began to receive communication from local parents, community members and community groups supportive of CFI Canada’s initiative and decrying the decisions of the School District. As an indication of transparency and disclosure, following are letters of support and related documentation throughout March and April 2015.
As a member of the Chilliwack community and a parent annoyed by the school districts lack of openness to anything outside of their religious bias I am extremely happy that CFI Canada has been proactive in attempting to have a balance provided in SD#33. I am not surprised by the school districts response and yet I am also angry. If there is anything I can do to advocate, protest or stand alongside CFI Canada’s efforts in this matter I am more than willing to help. (Message submitted via CFIC website March 26, 2015)
On April 1, the Chilliwack Times published an article titled “Dawkins book denied distribution in Chilliwack schools” by journalist Greg Laychak. In this article, the School District Superintendent finally released some details relating to the criteria used to block the Dawkins book:
Specifically, the Dawkins resource was noted to be biased and didn’t fit other guidelines the district currently considers significant considerations.
“What we’re trying to do with our resources is certainly include Canadian content and infuse our curriculum with First Nations perspectives and literature as we’re bringing in new materials,” Novak said.
School Board representatives also contradict themselves on their process or status relative to the distribution of Gideon Bibles:
“We actually aren’t distributing the Gideon Bible,” she said. “It is not being distributed to Grade 5 students or in our schools.”
Novak said she wouldn’t authorize permission slips to get either the Gideon book or the Dawkins book at public district schools. However, Novak also said she was not sure if the practice was still happening at the school level as she hasn’t checked the situation this year, but will look into the matter when classes resume next week.
Because of spring break, the Times was also unable to confirm whether or not bibles or permission forms are in schools.
But Chilliwack school board trustee Barry Neufeld said the Gideon Bibles, though not endorsed by the district, are made readily available for anyone who asks.
“Instead of sending out promotional literature to the kids our policy now is just to mention it on the school newsletter and if anybody’s interested they can contact the school and they can pick up a Gideon Bible if they want,” Neufeld said. “And I think it’s expanded, it’s not just available to Grade 5.”
Meanwhile, evidence of community support for the CFIC initiative continues to pile up in the form of comments on the articles and letters of support sent to CFIC, local media and the school district.
CFIC was copied on a letter of support sent by the BC Humanist Association on April 5, 2015:
BC Humanist Association Letter of Support for Parents and Children in School District # 33 and Fraser Valley Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists:
We support the right for secular and non-religious organizations to be able to distribute materials to students in School District 33 (SD33), while SD33 continues to allow distribution of Gideon Bibles.
Policy 518 of SD33 states that “recognized charitable organizations or other educational organizations having educational or community service attributes”, may apply to provide materials to be distributed in the district. Centre for Inquiry Canada, (CFIC), a registered educational charity, applied to distribute Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality. We supported CFIC’s request, as the resource is educational, supplements the provincial science curriculum, and is suitable for the grade 5 level students. Despite this, and claims that Policy 518 is inclusive of all worldviews, SD33 rejected CFIC’s application.
This first test demonstrates that Policy 518 is indistinguishable from the previous policy which provided the Gideons with exclusive access to proselytize to students in SD33. By granting privileged access to students of one religious ideology, we believe SD33 is contravening Section 76 of the BC School Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
We call on SD33 to immediately reverse its decision on CFIC’s materials or to repeal Policy 518.
As an educational charity, CFIC attempted to work within the Chilliwack School District’s policy for distribution of resources. The policy was adopted by the School Board to allow the distribution of Gideon Bibles and other material to school children. Despite our good faith attempt and clearly reasoned approaches, The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins was rejected through a highly questionable process of review.
CFIC is currently considering our response to the Chilliwack School District’s latest response.
Further Reading on this Issue
For further reading on the issue of Gideon Bible Distribution and school board actions, the following articles, references and media coverage may be of interest.