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'An 1896 solution for a 2023 problem': The upcoming vote to allow religious instruction at a St. James school

Student learning

An upcoming by-law vote about religious instruction is causing conflict in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division (SJASD).

By-law 326-23 will be the top item on the agenda at the SJASD board of trustees meeting on June 6. If passed, the by-law would authorize 30 minutes of religious instruction per week at Strathmillan School, an elementary school in the division.

"The instruction would take place over the lunch hour so as not to interfere with classroom instruction. The Board would not be compensating the coordinator or officiant for this religious instruction," said the SJASD in an email statement to CTV News.

The board is responding to a petition from area residents to allow a voluntary evangelical Christian lunchtime program. More than 25 signatures were gathered from Strathmillan parents who are in favour of the religious instruction.

"As per section 80 of the Public Schools Act, in the event that enough caregivers from a specific school sign a petition, the Board is required to pass a by-law authorizing religious instruction in that school. Any faith group can petition the Board for religious instruction. Only the children of petitioners receive instruction," said the SJASD statement.

The program would be run by the Child Evangelism Fellowship (CEF), a faith-based organization headquartered in Warrenton, Missouri. The international evangelical Christian group has more than 850 missionaries working across North America.

CEF Canada already runs lunchtime programs in nearly 50 Manitoba schools.

Pawan Earnest's daughter participated in a CEF program while attending an elementary school in the Louis Riel School Division. He was very happy with the program because it supplemented his daughter's education.

"They learn biblical principles," said Earnest. "Life is so important, it's not just an accident. That's what Christianity talks about. That's what our kid is learning through this program. We loved it and our daughter loved it too."

Earnest said the program is not about converting other students to Christianity.

"Nobody's forcing anybody," he said.

Not everyone is in favour of the Strathmillan program. Red for Ed MB is a grassroots organization that advocates about public education issues in Manitoba. The group has been actively protesting the CEF program on social media, urging the SJASD board to vote against the by-law change.

"Red for Ed Manitoba asks SJASD Trustees to recognize that the publicly available manual for child evangelism by CEF includes many statements which contravene the Division's own policies of inclusion and non-discrimination," said Red for Ed in an email statement to CTV News.

The organization also believes that sections 80 and 81 of Manitoba's Public Schools Act, which allow for religious instruction in public schools, should be repealed.

"These provisions should be repealed as they violate the core need for public institutions to treat all religions as equal and all religions as secular," said the Red for Ed statement.

Sections 80 and 81 of the Public Schools Act were created in the late 1800s, a response to Manitoba's rapidly changing population at the time.

Sections 80 and 81 of the Public Schools Act were created in the late 1800s, a response to Manitoba's rapidly changing population at the time. (Source: St. James-Assiniboia School Division)

"There was a lot of immigration coming into Manitoba," said Cameron Hauseman, assistant professor in the University of Manitoba's Faculty of Education. "These were English folks who were for the most part Protestant, and some of the French-Catholic minority were concerned that their rights were being trampled upon in a way."

Hauseman said Manitoba used to have more denominational schools, but many were closed in 1890 to help address the issue. Manitoba's public schools were not to favour one religion over another.

"In 1896, the premier at the time (Thomas) Greenway and Wilfrid Laurier our Prime Minister came to this compromise," said Hauseman. "They said, 'Okay fine we won't go with the religious schools again, but we can have this 2.5 hours of religious instruction if folks in the community think it’s something important to them.' And 125 years later we seem to be dealing with the aftermath of that."

Hauseman agrees Sections 80 and 81 are outdated.

"I really don't think it would survive a court challenge," he said. "We don't see any other provinces engaging in this kind of behaviour. It really is unique to Manitoba and unique to that situation at the turn of the 20th century.

"It really is an 1896 solution for a 2023 problem," he added.

Hauseman said he has heard of a few Christian evangelical organizations making use of sections 80 and 81, but not groups from other faiths.

"These Christian organizations are the only ones that seem to be aware of it. I'm sure if different religious organizations across the province get wind of what's going on and realize they only need to provide those 25 signatures from parents … I think it will really take off," said Hauseman.

The SJASD said it is obligated to consider the petition.

"As a public institution, we are required to create a safe and caring learning environment that includes respect for human diversity. We are also required to respect religious diversity," said the SJASD statement.

The SJASD Board of Trustees will hold their next in-person public board meeting on June 6 at 7:30 p.m. at the division office at 2574 Portage Avenue. The meeting will also be livestreamed from the SJASD YouTube channel. Top Stories

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