The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal has held that atheist belief is a creed worth protecting as a human right, forcing a Niagara school board to revise its policy to allow distribution of materials from more than just religious groups like the Gideons.
A complaint (click me for full text) was filed by a father (“RC”), on behalf of himself and his daughter (“SC”). RC’s kids attend a school that allowed the Gideons to distribute Christian Bibles (just the New Testament) to grade five students. The distribution had to be held outside class hours, the children had to have parental permission to attend, and religious instruction was expressly prohibited. The books, however, contained this description of God’s humble request of these children “[a]ll He’s asking is that you surrender your old life to Him and begin a brand new one.” Wow.
When his first child was in fifth grade, RC attended the distribution. Five years later he asked the principal for permission to distribute “Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children”. The book appears to promote skepticism and tells kids “[i]f you are an atheist, then you know that God Is Just Pretend.” The principal declined, but the Bibles were not given out that year either.
The school board then decided to amend its policy in this regard. Previously it allowed distribution by the only the Gideons, as long as the principal and the school council agreed. After RC’s request, it was changed to:
Any requests for the distribution of religious publications in schools must be approved by the Director or designate and subsequently by the Principal, in consultation with the School Council and with pre-approved parental consent.
RC asked again to distribute Just Pretend, and again he was denied on the grounds that atheism was not a religion pursuant to the definition in the Supreme Court case Anselem and that the book did not appear on the list of religious texts listed in the Multifaith Information Manual created by the Ontario Multifaith Council.
RC then went around asking other religions if they wanted to distribute materials but only one an Islamic group tried. They were rejected and told that the “school libraries and classrooms have a very wide and inclusive collection of books, including books about Ramadan and other aspects of Islamic culture”. When RC asked if anyone else had requested distribution he was told just himself and the Gideons had asked.
The Tribunal found in favour of RC and SC, and ordered the Board to amend its policy to conform with the law.
The Human Rights Code of Ontario is a statute that prohibits discrimination in employment, services, housing and contracts. Discrimination is generally considered to be adverse treatment based on one or more enumerated grounds including age, race, religion, sex, disability, and creed. Unlike the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms the list is longer, but closed. You cannot identify as another unlisted group and argue that you should also be protected from discrimination based on this analogous grounds.
RC complained that the discrimination faced by himself and his daughter was based on “creed” as opposed to “religion”. It would seem that this means that the Tribunal either had to rule that atheism is a creed, or dismiss the complaint altogether.
The Tribunal found that atheism is a creed under the Code and even the revised policy discriminated against atheists. It found, based on precedent, that creed is a larger circle in the Venn Diagram of thought, encompassing religious beliefs and secular ones, and noting that a belief in a deity was not required to have a creed. It finds, essentially, that creed can be treated like religion under the Code.
I think the result is right. By only allowing religious groups to distribute materials, the school is making a distinction between those who have religious beliefs and those who do not. It sends a message to developing minds and their parents that worldviews which fit its definition of “religion” are of more value than those which lack the characteristics of religion.
My concern with the case how it describes the group of people who may be described as atheists. Adjudicator Wright states repeatedly that what is being protected here are “core beliefs”, and implies that an atheist is someone who believes there is no god in a similar way to someone who believes in a god on faith. After finding that religious beliefs are creeds too, he says:
Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity, a profoundly personal belief about the lack of existence of a divine or higher order of being that governs their perception of themselves, humankind and the world.
This certainly may be true of RC and SC, and many atheists, but certainly not all, and quite possibly not most. I do not think there should be any need to assert a profound belief of any kind to gain the protection of the Code. For me, anyone who lacks a belief in a god is an atheist, whether they are Richard Dawkins or someone for whom the issue is just so uninteresting that they don’t think about it enough to form an opinion. All of these people deserve a school system that does not privilege religion. After all, we would not require those who claim protection the basis of ethnicity to prove that they are profoundly Punjabi, for example.
Of course the Tribunal is constrained by the ground RC chose to rely on: creed, or “croyance” in the French, which really does show that this ground requires a positive belief in something, such as the lack of a god.
It is unfortunate that RC chose this ground, because it is clear that he could have succeeded on the basis of “religion”. One can be discriminated against by homophobes if one is straight. One can be discriminated against one basis of political opinion if one holds none. One can be discriminated on the basis of religious opinion if one has no beliefs in any god. The Tribunal would seem to agree by quoting Chief Justice Dickson in the seminal Supreme Court of Canada case of Big M Drug Mart that:
Equally protected, and for the same reasons, are expressions and manifestations of religious non-belief and refusals to participate in religious practice. [emphasis added by the Tribunal]
The whole issue could have been avoided if Canada had a constitutional separation of church and state like the United States. If that were the case, the applicant might only need to demonstrate that the school board was taking a position on the issue of religion, instead of showing a profound core belief for strong atheism. Of course this might also pull the issue out of the jurisdiction of the Tribunal and force expensive lawsuits instead, or the threat thereof.
In the end, the Tribunal got to the right place. I just hope this case isn’t cited along with the painful refrain of “atheism is a religion too” or “I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist”, and so on.
(And how nasty is it that the school board told the Muslims to go away and lied to RC about it? And these people are responsible for educating our kids.)