School board to vote on Christian lessons in classroom
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Silver Heights families are the latest to request the community’s public school allow their children to participate in Christian lessons during the day — a longstanding, but little-known possibility under provincial legislation.
The St. James-Assiniboia School Board is anticipated to approve the use of Strathmillan School for elementary-aged theology programming at its next meeting. Trustees recently passed the first reading of a bylaw that aims to facilitate it.
Students who opt-in will study life lessons from the bible, memory verses and the history of holidays including Christmas and Easter, said Laura Lawrence of the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Manitoba.
“The children, when they hear how much God loves them, like Jeremiah 31:3 — ‘I have loved you with an everlasting love’ — they love that, and to be encouraged,” said Lawrence, who oversees the non-denominational organization’s classroom initiative.
The Child Evangelism Fellowship currently runs a program known as “Discovery Time” in about 25 schools, the majority of them in the Steinbach area, across the province. Before the COVID-19 pandemic and temporary school visitor restrictions were introduced, there were 50 participating buildings with about 170 classes in total.
Manitoba divisions must authorize the programming and any other kind of religious instruction be held during a school’s regular weekday schedule if enough caregivers in the community sign and submit a petition in favour of it.
The Public Schools Act states trustees must comply with a request brought forward by guardians of 10 or more children enrolled at a small school or caregivers of 25 students in a building with at least three classrooms.
“(Religious instruction) shall be conducted by a clergyman, priest, rabbi or other spiritual leader or by a representative of parents recognized by the school board as constituting a religious group or by any person including a teacher, duly authorized by… (a) spiritual leader,” it states.
Optional elementary theology is often run in a school in the late afternoon before dismissal or during lunch or snack times. It cannot exceed two and a half hours per week and parents must re-apply for it every school year.
The provision dates back to the amalgamation of Manitoba’s two public school systems — French Catholic and English Protestant boards — in 1890. It was then the Manitoba Schools Act, a predecessor of the Public Schools Act, came into force to establish a single secular system.
The creation of an English mega-board sparked outcry amongst the province’s francophone minority and a political crisis dubbed the “Manitoba Schools Question.”
In a nearly 75-year-old lecture on the subject, which has been transcribed and published by the Manitoba Historical Society, the late civil servant Robert Fletcher explained the political crisis “raged on” for several years before reaching its height around the 1896 federal election.
Later that year, newly-elected prime minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier and then-premier Thomas Greenway came to an intergovernmental agreement to amend education laws to allow for taxpayer-funded French instruction, as well as religious studies in public schools under certain circumstances.
“You will note the very sweeping provision made in the matter of language (in the updated) legislation. It has been said that this was in consideration of the Mennonites,” Fletcher said in his address, which was delivered as part of the historical society’s 1949-50 season of public lectures.
The amendment to the Public Schools Act authorized religious teaching if a resolution was passed by a majority of school trustees, or parents of either 10 children in a rural school or at least 25 children in a city, town or village petitioned for it.
It came into force in 1897, although the Free Press archives suggest the changes did not happen without controversy.
On Nov. 4, 1897, the newspaper reported: “The question of religious instruction in schools intended mainly for secular instruction is not a question that is easily settled to the satisfaction of everybody.”
The provincial director of the Child Evangelism Fellowship noted there have been a handful of times since Discovery Time’s 1971 inception that members of the public have questioned the religious instruction clause.
“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,” IBK Akin said.
The director said participants often “don’t make too much noise about it” because they recognize children and religion can be sensitive subjects that elicit strong emotions for many.
The organization does little advertising for the program. Community members generally hear about it through word-of-mouth and get in touch with organizers to launch a local chapter.
Akin called it a blessing that Manitoba allows for age-appropriate bible lessons in public schools because it supports a fundamental freedom to practice one’s religion of choice.
So far in 2022-23, Winnipeg’s Shamrock School, École Van Belleghem and Donwood School have received approval for their community-initiated partnerships with Discovery Time.
The Christian program, with its longest sessions spanning 45 minutes per week, is run in 16 of Hanover School Division’s 19 buildings.
Francophone superintendent Alain Laberge said roughly one third of the 24 schools in the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine typically receive petitions that result in either a teacher or local clergy member providing Catholic education.
Limited uptake of the religious instruction option indicates schools have become extremely secular so many faith groups feel their churches or other sacred spaces are best suited to deliver teachings, said John Wiens, dean emeritus of the University of Manitoba’s faculty of education.
“The second thing it tells me is that there are groups who actually are opposed to child evangelism because they see it as indoctrination,” Wiens added.
Maggie Macintosh reports on education for the Winnipeg Free Press. Funding for the Free Press education reporter comes from the Government of Canada through the Local Journalism Initiative.
Updated on Monday, May 22, 2023 2:07 PM CDT: Corrects date