Bible distribution in Abbotsford schools draws criticism

Students get Bibles after returning consent cards handed out by teachers.

Grade 5 students in Abbotsford school district receive these consent cards that parents can sign for their children to receive a 'New Testament Answer Book'

The Abbotsford school district has been asked to stop the distribution of Gideon bibles in schools by a group of atheists.

Teachers in Abbotsford schools hand Grade 5 students consent cards provided by Gideons International, a Christian organization. Those who return a signed card then receive a book with the title “Answer book.” Inside is a copy of the New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs.

The activity is permitted under a school board policy that allows any organization to request to distribute materials. The Gideons are the only organization that has utilized the practice to this point.

In a press release issued Wednesday, the BC Humanist Association (BCHA) called for the practice to be stopped, saying it is unconstitutional and in violation of the BC School Act. If the activity isn’t stopped, the BCHA is asking the district to allow it to distribute an atheist-themed comic.

“The district cannot hide behind consent cards, as even those have the effect of singling out students on the basis of their beliefs,” said Ian Bushfield, executive director of the BCHA. Bushfield said Abbotsford is the only district he is aware of that allows the distribution of Gideon bibles to students.

The organization said it takes issue with the distribution of materials promoting any religion, and that equal opportunities must be given to beliefs that reject the existence of a god.

This isn’t the first time that bibles in Abbotsford schools have drawn criticism. In 2013, a Godson elementary parent said she was upset after her child was offered a bible in school without receiving or submitting a consent card.

Abbotsford school district spokesperson Dave Stephen said the district will review the letter and its arguments. He said 112 of the bibles were distributed in 21 schools last year.

The district is moving away from allowing material for camps and other events to be handed out in schools and instead encouraging community organizations of all stripes to publicize their events on a page on the district’s website. Stephen said the district could similarly look at moving the bible consent form online.

In 2012, the Chilliwack school district was criticized for a similar practice that saw Gideon bibles being distributed in its schools. The following year, that school district amended its policy and removed a regulation specifically endorsing the Gideons’ activity.

After the Chilliwack issue drew attention, the Abbotsford board of education said it was not planning to amend its policies.

Last year, Chilliwack school board trustee Barry Neufeld said the Gideon bibles, though not endorsed by the district, are made readily available for anyone who asks.

“Instead of sending out promotional literature to the kids, our policy now is just to mention it on the school newsletter and if anybody’s interested they can contact the school and they can pick up a Gideon bible if they want,” Neufeld said. “And I think it’s expanded; it’s not just available to Grade 5.”

On its website, Gideons International says: “To fulfill their role in the community, school boards today have developed policies to treat all religious groups fairly. In most cases, schools send a letter home to their students’ parents, informing them of the opportunity to receive a New Testament provided by The Gideons. Parents then have the option to refuse or accept the gift. This opportunity is available to any religious group who would like to offer a religious book of their own.

“In providing New Testaments to students, we are offering a book we believe has value to people of all ages – even children in Grade 5.”