R.C. v. District School Board of Niagara 2013 HRTO 1382

The Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario recently ruled on an Application brought by a parent of children in the District School Board of Niagara (the “Board”) who objected to the Board’s long-standing practice of allowing the Gideons International in Canada to distribute their version of the New Testament to grade 5 students.   The Board’s policy at the time allowed the practice provided that the principal in consultation with the school council agreed.  Consent forms were sent home to parents, and distribution to students whose parents had agreed took place outside of class time. 

The Applicant in this case identifies as an atheist.  When he contacted the school with a request that a children’s book promoting atheism also be offered to grade 5 students, the school council decided that neither the Gideon Bible nor the atheist book would be distributed.  A subsequent request to the Board by the Canadian Council of Imams to provide books and brochures on the Islamic faith for distribution was acknowledged, but did not result in approval to issue copies to students.

The Applicant thus alleged that the Board’s policy discriminated against him and his child with respect to education services because of creed, contrary to section 1 of the Human Rights Code, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19, which states:

S.1 Every person has a right to equal treatment with respect to services, goods and facilities, without discriminations because of race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, age, marital status, family status or disability. 

Citing both Charter and Code jurisprudence, the Tribunal held that creed includes religion, and religious protection includes the right to believe that there is no deity.

The Tribunal had no trouble finding that the Board’s original policy of allowing only one religious group to distribute materials to students amounted to discrimination.  However, the Applicant asked that the Tribunal order that no religious literature of any kind be distributed in schools. 

The Tribunal held that while the Code ensures equality because of creed, it does not ban creed from all public spaces.  A public school board may decide not to distribute religious material of any kind.  However, if a school board’s policy is to allow for optional religious activities outside the instructional day, such a policy would be allowable under the Code, provided that:

  • Student participation is optional;
  • All creeds are treated equally; and
  • There is no subtle or formal coercion of students to participate.

The Tribunal went on to say that if a school board is going to allow for the distribution of religious material in its schools, it needs to do more than just ensure that its policy facilitates the access of groups other than the Gideons.   To ensure compliance with the Code, the school board must make some effort to encourage a diversity of literature, and promote awareness of its willingness to allow for the distribution of materials by all interested groups. 

The extent of the effort necessary to comply with this requirement is unclear. However, the principles outlined in this decision provide a useful guideline for public school boards intending to review their policies and practices with a view to allowing after-school religious activities in schools.