An atheist family in British Columbia was just awarded $12,000 by the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal after their daughter was kicked out of the Bowen Island Montessori School (BIMS). The tribunal called this “discrimination” and said the school “treated them differently from every other parent at the school, and sought to suppress their expression of concerns about the nature of the curriculum that were grounded in their race, ancestry and religious beliefs.”
Victory, right? Technically, sure, but the more details you learn about this story, the harder it becomes to sympathize with the family. At least I have a hard time joining the celebration.
Here’s the backstory: In 2014, the child of atheists Gary Mangel and Mai Yasué was enrolled in BIMS while Mangel himself sat on the board of directors. That November, the board was discussing how the school would celebrate the holidays and someone suggested clay elf ornaments.
Mangel said no. That was a promotion of a Christian holiday, and not all families celebrated Christmas. Another board member asked if adding a Hanukkah activity would fix the problem. Mangel said no again. And his response via email held very little back regarding how he felt about holiday celebrations in general.
Watch this message go from I have an alternative perspective to SCREW YOU ALL in all of two seconds…
I don’t think it’s appropriate to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other religious/political event at preschool (including Remembrance Day). [My child] is three years old… [and] cannot consent to being involved in decorating military wreaths or Christmas trees or lighting Hanukkah candles. Having the kids do these things seems inappropriate, given their absolute inability to understand the religious and political symbolism associated with those acts. As Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) has written, there is no such thing as a Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, etc… baby/toddler/child. They are simply too young to be making these sorts of decisions.
As a side note, I certainly hope that there will be no discussion of Santa Claus at BIMS. I am absolutely against anyone blatantly lying to my daughter…
Just some thoughts from an atheist family… please accept my apologies … if this offends!
Yeesh. Way to suck the joy out of everything. For what it’s worth, I’m an atheist parent with kids and I think it’s educational to learn about all of these holidays in addition to the culturally relevant Santa story. I understand not wanting only Christianity “celebrated” in school, but the idea that teachers can’t even discuss various holiday traditions with students is absurd.
That was the position of the other board members, who said that giving students this global perspective — a “cosmic education” — was vital to the Montessori philosophy. Board members responded to the email with that argument, but things only escalated from there. There were more emails, in-person meetings, and car ride conversations.
At one point, Mangel suggested the inclusion of “atheist Christmas ornaments.” One said “Skeptic.” Another defined “atheist” as “someone who believes in one fewer god than you do.” Another showed a picture of a plane flying into the World Trade Center with the caption, “Atheists don’t fly airplanes into buildings.”
You know. General holiday fare for kids.
The board, not surprisingly, didn’t like it. (One member found that last ornament offensive and called it “a veiled form of Islamophobia.”)
So their argument continued throughout November. At one point, Mangel rightly pointed out that reading a book to students called “This is the Stable” (about the birth of Jesus) went too far — and the school agreed with that — but otherwise, it was his argument that the school should pretend none of these holidays or traditions exist with board members who wanted to give students a taste of everything. (Or at least the major ones.)
The emails basically turned into a reality TV show, with people not CC’ing Mangel on certain threads, sniping at each other in private messages, accomplishing very little, and changing no minds. Other parents were now aware of the situation, too, and thought meeting in person could calm everyone down.
That didn’t work. One parent expressed to Mangel a desire to include many traditions in the curriculum. According to that parent, Mangel didn’t take it well.
Mr. Henriques said something to the effect that the issue comes down to one’s personal views and asked, “what are you going to do about it?” Mr. Mangel responded that he would “sue the school.” Mr. Henriques then talked about the public school that his son attends where children sing our National Anthem with the word “God” in it. Mr. Mangel responded, “I’ll sue them too” and then began doing the Nazi salute and marching around while he sung a different version of O Canada in which he substituted his own lyrics. Mr. Henriques felt uncomfortable and left soon after.
Even if that was a joke, as Mangel later claimed, doing a Nazi salute is never going to win you an argument. Just a good life tip right there.
The arguments continued into the following May, when, during a parent-teacher conference, Mangel and Yasué told a teacher that “we let Valentine’s Day and Easter” slide without a peep. They wanted credit for not complaining about Cupid and the Easter Bunny, and they were angry the school still hadn’t changed its multi-cultural approach.
The atheists insisted they didn’t want “cultural” aspects removed from the school… but basically, if any holiday had any basis in religion (like Valentine’s Day because of St. Valentine), they were going to create a ruckus about it.
The school eventually asked the atheists to sign what amounted to a contract that included a section saying, “Multiculturalism, including the observation of a wide variety of celebrations is important to us.”
The atheists refused to sign it. (Other parents weren’t asked to sign it.)
The school took that as reason not to re-enroll their daughter.
That’s what this legal complaint was about. Not the atheists being dicks, but the school responding by asking them to sign a letter no one else had to sign, then using that refusal as a reason to kick their daughter out of school. (Making things worse, whatever concerns they had about Mangel, they expressed them privately, not to his face.)
In short, the school punished a little girl for her parents’ sincerely held religious beliefs.
The judge said the atheists weren’t asking to remove all cultural aspects of the curriculum even if the school took it to mean that. Furthermore, the requests could have been accommodated by the school without violating their principles.
That’s why the parents have won this legal battle.
“I find nothing in the evidence that could justify the refusal to register [the child] unless Dr. Yasué and Mr. Mangel essentially agreed that they would be significantly limited in their ability to raise issues about the cultural aspects of the BIMS program,” [Tribunal member Barbara] Korenkiewicz wrote.
She said the school should pay the child $2,000 and the parents $5,000 each as compensation for the discrimination.
The judge also said:
… BIMS treated them differently from every other parent at the school, and sought to suppress their expression of concerns about the nature of the curriculum that were grounded in their race, ancestry and religious beliefs.
It’s the right outcome, but it doesn’t mean I agree the atheist parents were entirely right in what they argued and how they argued it. When you have a large school, with board members attempting to do all the right things (ethically and legally), and one family is just a constant annoying thorn in the side, it sets everybody off. But responding to the atheists by punishing their daughter was a step too far.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Janice and Brian for the link)