The controversy around handing out free Bibles in school districts such as Abbotsford and Chilliwack has prompted a call for Education Minister Don McRae to investigate whether religion is creeping into some B.C. public schools.
The B.C. Humanist Association says it has found policies in several school districts, including Abbotsford, which contravene a law requiring public schools to be strictly secular.
In Abbotsford, Chilliwack and Powell River, school districts allow Gideons International to deliver free Bibles to Grade 5 students with parental consent. Additionally, Abbotsford has a policy on sex education that urges schools to "celebrate" abstinence as the smart, safe and healthy choice for students.
While that isn't overtly religious, the association's Ian Bushfield says in a letter to McRae that abstinence-based sex education is often motivated by traditional religious values rather than scientific evidence.
The policy, which appears to be unique in B.C., says all classroom discussions about pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases must focus on helping students "make the responsible choice of not engaging in sexual activity."
Bushfield, who scanned a number of school district policies but didn't examine all of them, said his greater concern is about the willingness of school districts to allow the Gideons to continue a decades-old practice of giving free copies of the New Testament to students.
In a letter last week to McRae, he asked for an investigation into "the status of secularism in our public schools and (efforts to) . . . uphold the rights of students to attend public schools free from religious influence."
Asked whether government would order an investigation, ministry spokesman Scott Sutherland would say only that the letter was being reviewed by staff.
Bushfield also sent letters to the districts asking them to repeal policies regarding the Gideons and ensure schools are free from proselytizing.
Bushfield says the policy gives opportunities to one religion that are denied others.
"While the comparative study of religious literature can be valuable to promoting critical thinking skills in students, the policy in its current state merely promotes blind acceptance of one narrow religious world view."
Abbotsford board of education chair John Sutherland said the district isn't promoting one religion over another.
"It's not a question of choosing one group over another. No other group has asked us to do it," Sutherland said.
"If they did, it would be done on the same basis as the Gideons."
Only 30 to 35 per cent of the 30 elementary schools in Abbotsford distribute the Bibles, and the numbers requested are "minimal," according to the district.
Principals make the decision as to whether Bible distribution takes place in individual schools, said Sutherland.
Abbotsford superintendent Kevin Godden said he didn't see the connection between the district's sex education policy and religion.
"It's a factual statement that the best way to prevent teen pregnancy is abstinence," said Godden.
"There's nothing religious about that whatsoever."
Godden said that the district is constantly reviewing all its policies and is already undergoing the process this year.
The distribution of Bibles will be examined but it's not likely to stop, he said.
"We don't anticipate our practice will change," said Godden.
The district's sex education policy is also slated for reevaluation and will be shaped by the latest teaching methods and the education ministry.
"We will and have continued to review policies that reflect our best understanding of best instructional practice and the newest version of ministry curriculum," he said.
Concerns around Bibles in schools came to public attention last month after Chilliwack parent Richard Ajabu complained to local school trustees that the distribution of the books amounted to religious indoctrination.
The board discussed his complaint privately and then announced it would not change the practice, saying it was a matter of parental choice.
But a few days later, board chairwoman Louise Piper sent an e-mail to Ajabu advising that trustees will discuss the matter in public after all during the board's next meeting on Nov. 13.
The B.C. Humanist Association says it speaks for atheists, agnostics and other free thinkers and has about 200 members.