The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal Included Atheism in Its Definition of “Creed,” but It Was the Right Move September 14, 2014

The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal Included Atheism in Its Definition of “Creed,” but It Was the Right Move

Note: We posted a similar version of this story last year, though this post offers a different angle on the matter.

The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruled last year that protection from discrimination based on belief extends to atheists as well as religious people. It is no longer permissible to discriminate against someone who “rejects one, many, or all religions’ beliefs and practices or believes there is no deity.”

Moreover, in schools where Gideons International gives away free Bibles, atheists may also distribute literature to children.

That was the problem at issue in the case of R.C. v. District School Board of Niagara. The school board was permitting the Gideons to distribute copies of the New Testament to students (with parental consent) during an after-school event but didn’t have any provisions in place to allow other religions or those without religion to distribute comparable materials. In fact, when parent Rene Chouinard (the R.C. of the case’s title) sought to present children with copies of Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children by Dan Barker, the school board turned him down flat. They amended their policy to allow for the distribution of other sacred texts, but still refused Chouinard’s request because “atheism was not a religion, and Just Pretend was… not a recognized sacred text or authoritative source of any religion.”

Chouinard was not willing to let matters stand, recognizing that the Gideons’ material was aimed at indoctrination and proselytization. He told reporters:

This is not about the rights of Christians, except to establish that they do not supercede others’ rights. It’s not about teaching of religion like world religion courses, which we strongly support. The Gideons’ material is not to teach reading or for literature reasons, and it’s not about following traditions as traditions change with the times.

To an extent, Ontario’s Human Rights Tribunal agreed.

The Tribunal found that this policy put the school board in the position of arbitrarily judging whether the belief systems and religious texts applying for in-school distribution were valid or invalid. The District School Board of Niagara is now forbidden to distribute any religious materials at all in schools until its members develop a policy that accounts for the diversity of ways different belief systems communicate their beliefs — such as, in the case of atheism, the absence of a single ancient text outlining core tenets.

The Tribunal ruled that exposure to religion outside the classroom was not contrary to students’ human rights, so long as participation was optional and free from coercion, the school remained neutral, and any belief system was welcomed or included. Thus, the Gideons’ proselytization was licit but needed to be tempered with the presence of all sorts of believers, explicitly including atheists.

It may be hard to keep from getting frustrated when the faithful dismiss us as “just another belief system,” but for the purposes of fighting in-school indoctrination, this ruling was a win.

(Image via Shutterstock)

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