St. James residents are putting pressure on trustees to reject a faith-based group’s request to use a local public school to conduct non-compulsory Bible lessons for children whose parents want them to study elementary theology during the week.

Families at Strathmillan School, a kindergarten-to-Grade 5 building in Winnipeg, are the latest to take advantage of a little-known but longstanding clause in provincial legislation that allows for limited religious instruction on division grounds.

“The only way for public schools or any public institutions to be fair and impartial is to leave religion out of (them),” said Dorothy Stephens, a graduate of the St. James-Assiniboia School Division whose grandchildren attend area schools.

“There’s no reason for it. All of these programs can be run in the churches or any other space.”

The Public Schools Act states boards shall authorize religious programming in a building if enough caregivers — in the case of a standard-sized school, parents of at least 25 children — sign a petition in favour of it.

SJASD trustees were scheduled to discuss a motion to approve the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Manitoba’s use of Strathmillan for the remainder of the school year at a board meeting Tuesday evening.

The Christian organization is currently running its non-denominational “Discovery Time” program in about 25 Manitoba schools, including a handful of elementary buildings in the capital city.

Faith-based instruction of any kind can take place during school hours, but it cannot exceed 2 1/2 hours per week, and parents must reapply for the opt-in extracurricular every academic year.

The programs — which must be run by a clergyman, priest, rabbi or another spiritual leader or authorized representative — typically take place in the late afternoon or during snack breaks.

SJASD board chairwoman Cheryl Smukowich said trustees value feedback from community members and are reviewing the new petition “very carefully.”

“That said, we are primarily looking at section 80(2) of the Public Schools Act, which outlines how school boards respond to the reception of a petition for religious instruction,” Smukowich said in an email.

Section 80 is connected to the 1890 amalgamation of Manitoba’s French Catholic and English Protestant school systems into a secular mega-board.

Elsebeth Hansen-Kriening, a resident and former teacher in SJASD, said it’s high time the province updated its legislation “to reflect 21st century society in Canada.” Until then, Hansen-Kriening wants her trustees to challenge legislation, citing its at times ambiguous language around religious instruction.

“I’m not against children and adults learning about religion — that’s not the issue here. The issue is this is a public school, which is supposed to be non-sectarian,” said the mother, who sent her children to private religious schools that disclosed the faith-based programming they were providing to families.

The problem with evangelizing students during the school day is participants will inevitably expose their peers to the program and its contents when they mingle after a session or beforehand, Hansen-Kriening said.

“Children might feel it’s their mission to go out and save classmates,” she added.

CEF’s local leader declined an interview, citing a Monday break-in at the organization’s headquarters on Henderson Highway.

Provincial director IBK Akin previously told the Free Press families involved with Discovery Time often keep quiet about it because they recognize children and religion can be sensitive subjects that elicit strong emotions for many.

“We’re not challenging anything or anyone. We’re serving the parents and this is something that they want, so we’re just being there for them,” Akin said, calling it a blessing Manitoba law facilitates Bible lessons in public schools because it supports a fundamental freedom to practice religion.

Red For Ed MB, a grassroots campaign of public school teachers, parents and residents, recently released a statement condemning the work of CEF at-large as “extremist.”

“Evangelism involves the presentation and explanation of those Bible truths which an unsaved child needs to be saved, and the clear and definite application of those truths to his mind, heart and will,”states an excerpt from a 2010 manual published by the global organization.

“You need to be saved, because God is Holy, and your sinful nature and acts separate you from Him.”

Stephens, a lifelong resident in SJASD, alleged any groups making use of Manitoba’s religious instruction clause are doing so for the recruitment possibilities.

“The kids who go or don’t go, depending on the ratio, are going to be singled out and identified as different… Either way, you’re going to create a division in the student population,” added the grandmother, who was a member of Humanists, Atheists and Agnostics of Manitoba before it disbanded.

Education Minister Wayne Ewasko was not made available for a phone call Tuesday.

In a statement, Ewasko urged anyone with questions about the legislation to review publicly available policies online and contact SJASD with further information about this specific instance.

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 06, 2023 at 18:23

This item reprinted with permission from   Free Press   Winnipeg, Manitoba
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