Aug 022012

By Jay Gamble

I would like to start by saying that I am not one to join atheist groups. I go about my atheism quietly. Recent events have forced me to be more vocal; and Mr. Luke Fevin’s recent bravery has inspired me to speak out against state-sanctioned religion in Alberta classrooms.

I am intentionally not naming the school board or the school my children attend, because I do not want my children targeted for not being Christian. I live in a very small rural community; my children attend a K-12 school with fewer than 300 students. I do not want my children to be ostracized or bullied for my beliefs (or lack of belief).

To make a long story short, my child’s school distributed a survey to parents that asked if they would be interested in introducing Christian classes at the rural school outside of Lethbridge. Now, I fully admit that I went overboard about this rational questionnaire. I wrote a hastily-composed, rashly-sent, and very angry e-mail to the principal of the school. I threatened legal action. I signed my name and title and institutional affiliation, because that affiliation indicated that I am both personally and professionally invested in education.

After only some brief research (after I sent the letter), I discovered—to my horror—that it is perfectly legal for school boards in Alberta to “prescribe religious instruction” (Alberta School Act: 50(1) a). I was born and raised in Ontario: I did not know that Canadian provinces could be so backward; colour me ignorant. I was outraged, but I also dropped into my child’s school to apologize to the principal about both the tone of my e-mail and the (sadly) empty legal threat. I asked for more information and was given it. I was also told by the principal that my e-mail had been sent to the Board.

I considered the matter closed. Some might call me a weak-willed atheist. My partner and I have been incredibly pleased with the work that the teachers have done at the school my elder child attends and that my younger child will begin to attend in September. I was thinking of my children, since this is a small community and I did not want them to be targeted and bullied for my refusal to indoctrinate my children.

The next night, I received, at 11:12 p.m., an e-mail request to meet with Mr. Kevin Garinger, an Associate Superintendent of the School Board the next morning. There were time restrictions placed on the meeting, as well. I was requested to meet before 10:00 a.m. That’s less than twelve hours notice. I composed an e-mail that explained that I thought the issue had been resolved. I then decided I should probably apologize to the person on whose lap my angry, anti-religious e-mail had landed. I said I would meet him.

At that meeting, I fully expected that I could explain that I had already apologized for the letter, that I, regretfully, retract my legal threat, since it is perfectly legal in Alberta to have a state-sanctioned religion – and that particular religion is Christianity.

It turned out that the Board had already been informed about my apology for my letter. Contrary to my expectations, Mr. Garinger requested my immediate presence to hand me a letter of his own. The letter stated—and I have to recall this from memory, since I was not permitted to keep a copy—that I was to refrain from “editorializing” about the Board’s survey about offering religious instruction, “including [their] legal right to do so.” The word “including” essentially stated that I cannot speak about the matter any further. Further, they intended to copy the letter to my employer, as an implicit threat to my career. I called the mealy-mouthed administrator on his attempts to curtail my freedom of expression and the implicit threat to my job. He refused to acknowledge, either, as he stated that “we just wanted to show you what our response would have been.”

Here is my reading of the situation: “You apologized. We were going to send this letter. We didn’t. However, if you talk about this again, we will tattle to your boss.”

To summarize: I was—and I use this term quite consciously, given the climate of “zero-tolerance” for bullying in Alberta schools—bullied by the administration. They knew I had apologized and retracted my legal threat, but they wanted to make sure I never criticized them on the topic again.

I maintain that this meeting was an attempt to silence me. I have since written a letter to my newly-elected provincial representative to eliminate religious instruction in Alberta classrooms. I have also written a letter to Alberta’s Premier, in which I state:

Thankfully, Alberta does not yet have special classes for other groups of people: History for Scots; different drinking fountains and bathrooms for students of colour; home economics for women; physical education for men. Why, then, does Alberta continue to promote one form of identity politics (religion) above all others?

I hope that you will take the moderate position on this issue, Premier Redford, and realize that it is absolutely unfair to promote one group of people over other groups. Religion is a deeply personal matter, and it should remain so.

I received a form-letter response from the Minister of Education.

I was asked to write a post for the Society of Edmonton Atheists to show that the problems with religious instruction in Alberta schools are not just happening in a few isolated places. I was reluctant to do so because I fear that my children could be targeted. However, I will attempt to emulate the bravery of Mr. Fevin. I think it is time that we band together, that we make a move to end religious instruction in Alberta’s schools. We should eliminate religion in the classroom not just because it is religious, but because it is divisive.

Let’s get loud.

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