Last edited: November 06, 2004

British Columbia Schools and The Law

Planet Out, June 23, 2000

SUMMARY: British Columbia school board renews book ban battle.

Surrey Book Ban in Appeals Court In 1996, first grade teacher James Chamberlain applied to the Vancouver-area Surrey School Board — controlling the largest school district in British Columbia — to use three books in his classroom that depicted children of gay and lesbian couples, and his request was denied. He and Murray Warren of Gay and Lesbian Educators of British Columbia (GLE-BC), among others, challenged the ban, and in January 1999 a provincial trial court struck it down, reasoning that the board had violated the School Act by basing its decision on religious grounds. On June 21, hearings began in the BC Court of Appeal as the conservative-dominated board insists on its right to make the decision — as it has already insisted to the tune of $792,000 the district can ill afford to spare from education concerns.

The three children’s books are Asha’s Mums, One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dads, Blue Dads and Belinda’s Bouquet (the last by the U.S. author of the oft-banned Heather Has Two Mommies); none of the books has any sexual content. The BC Teachers’ Federation included the first two titles in the recommended book list of the resource guide for kindergarten through Grade 7 it unveiled in March called "Moving Beyond Silence: Addressing Homophobia in Elementary Schools." The Federation, which recently adopted a position in support of establishing Gay Straight Alliance groups, spoke out against the ban as the case went to court this week. Its president David Dhudnovsky accused the board of imposing a "private religious agenda on the public school system" and of wasting money on lawyers while cutting resources for special education.

While religious issues were not raised in the courtroom, GLE-BC’s Warren noted that Surrey School Board Chair Heather Stilwell was the founding president of the Christian Heritage Party, whose agenda includes reinstating the sodomy law and repealing the federal Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Warren, an elementary teacher in nearby Coquitlam, says he has used the same books in his own classroom without the students experiencing any difficulties.

In addition, the school board recently slapped Chamberlain with a seven-week suspension on allegations that he had publicly referred to a student as being gay — which even though apparently no names were mentioned was taken as a reference to a 14-year-old student in the district who was driven to suicide this year by the anti-gay harassment of his peers. Warren alleges the disciplinary action was a "vendetta" against Chamberlain by the board.

Representing the school board before the three-judge appeals panel, attorney John Dives pointed out that none of the three books are on the list approved by the Ministry of Education, and admitted that if they were, the decision would be out of the board’s hands. (In fact the ministry has recently been discussing adding them to the list; on learning of that, Surrey board chair Stilwell said the district would want to recoup the money it’s spent defending the ban.) He also cited the provincial curriculum guidelines on sex education — or "personal development" as it’s known — as not referring to same-gender relationships until after Grade 7. Absent that official guidance, he posed the situation as one of determining when children should be taught the material and who should make that decision. He maintained that the decision was best made by local boards as reflecting their own communities’ values, and claimed the Surrey School Board had made its determination based on what was age-appropriate. He called gay and lesbian families "sensitive issues" that were more sensitive the younger the children involved.

Dives denied the decision had been made based on the acceptability of same-gender couples, and said there would be no problem with a teacher responding to a student’s question on the subject. The hearings will continue.

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