A Christian group has been granted access to a public elementary school in Silver Heights to conduct opt-in Bible lessons for the remainder of the 2022-23 academic year.

Elected officials in the St. James-Assiniboia School Division approved a motion to authorize faith-based education in Strathmillan School during a meeting Tuesday evening.

“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 trustee Angela Dunn, who delivered a statement on behalf of the SJASD board.

Earlier in the spring, a group of Strathmillan families put forward a petition to request the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Manitoba run “Discovery Time” in the kindergarten-to-Grade 5 building.

A board must sanction religious instruction in a facility if the guardians of at least 25 children in a standard-sized school sign an appeal in favour of it, per Manitoba’s Public Schools Act.

Section 80 in the legislation — a little-known provision that has sparked controversy among St. James residents — outlines the parameters of theology.

Dunn said she and her colleagues wanted to address a number of queries that individuals have raised about the petition over the last week and provide clarity on the matter.

Only the children of petitioners will receive CEF instruction, which will happen over the lunch hour for no more than 30 minutes every week, per the board’s newly approved bylaw.

The SJASD board will not charge rent or compensate the spiritual leader in charge of the program.

“Our schools remain committed to providing non-sectarian, non-discriminatory environments that respect the rights and beliefs of all students and their families, and we acknowledge concerns regarding the historical complexities and harms associated with various religious groups,” Dunn said, noting any faith group can petition the board.

A handful of residents, one of whom wrote to trustees to condemn CEF as a global organization, showed up to the Tuesday meeting to ask questions and weigh in on the subject.

CEF’s local leaders describe Discovery Time as a program in which children learn about God’s love for them via songs, games and memory verses.

Critics claim the non-denominational organization instils fear in children by teaching them about sins and punishment, among other controversial subjects discussed in its global manual on child evangelism.

Trustees Tara Smith and Sandy Lethbridge both publicly committed to attending one of CEF’s local sessions.

“I would like to hear for myself what is being taught, discussed and report back to the board so that we are aware of what is happening and making sure that the group is following our guidelines for diversity and safe and caring schools,” said Smith, during the board’s latest public meeting.

Also Tuesday, the SJASD board voted to contact the minister of education to seek clarification on provincial laws surrounding religious instruction.

Education Minister Wayne Ewasko said he has asked his department to contact SJASD to provide support.

“Changes are not being contemplated at this time… The (Section 80) process is in place; I think that it’s a fair process,” Ewasko told the Free Press.

He indicated caregivers with different viewpoints about religious instruction can reach out to local officials about the matter because boards are best positioned to decide how to best use their facilities.

Trustees in the Winnipeg School Division struck out in a bid to have provincial officials scrap the religious instruction clause in the Public Schools Act 23 years ago.

At the time, Drew Caldwell, then-education minister, declared the legislation was working as intended and refused to amend it.

By Maggie Macintosh, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Original Published on Jun 07, 2023 at 22:32

This item reprinted with permission from   Free Press   Winnipeg, Manitoba
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