The most embarrassing part of the controversy surrounding Alberta’s Bill 44, the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Amendment Act, 2009, lies not with the wording of the act itself but with Premier Ed Stelmach’s mind-bogglingly dumb pronouncement that it might allow parents to pull their children from a classroom if evolution was about to be taught.
In fact, it is not at all clear that this is so. The most controversial portion of the act states that “…(a) board as defined in the School Act shall provide notice to a parent of guardian of a student where courses of study, educational programs or instructional materials, or instruction or exercises, prescribed under that Act include subject matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation.” (Emphasis added.) The section then goes on to explain parents’ options if they disapprove of the material being taught – namely, that their kids may leave the classroom or do something else in the classroom until the topic in question has been dealt with.
Notwithstanding cheap comparisons with the Arkansas curriculum (about which I’ll bet none of us actually knows anything much) these past few days, I very much doubt it was the intention of the drafters of this legislation to include the topic of evolution under the general heading of “religion.” (Indeed, one might be able to make a better case it belongs under “sexuality,” but that’s a reach no one is very likely to try.)
Note that the act emphatically does not state that this parental right extends to “subject matter that deals explicitly with science.” Arguably, where a few Alberta cave dwellers like it or not, evolution is science and not a matter of religion, and the act doesn’t allow parents to exclude their children from science classes.
The problem really started with the premier’s comment, which was foolish and ignorant – ignorant of the law, at any rate, if not ignorant of some people’s idea of religion.
Religious fundamentalists – regardless of which religion they choose to be fundamental about – can always be depended upon to try to extend their religious views into secular matters. The debate, if that’s the word, about evolution, intelligent design and the like is an example that plagues our society here in the West.
Thanks to the premier’s foolish remark, it will be hard to do so, but Alberta’s educational authorities should refuse to even consider objections to the mention of evolution under the heading of religion, any more than they would consider, say, a discussion of blood transfusions a religious matter even if it offended members of certain Christian sects.
If Mr. Stelmach would just shut up, I suspect we could get to that sensible point reasonably quickly.
It is interesting to note that there is nothing really new about this provision, at least insofar as the teaching of religion goes. The School Act has contained similar provisions since 1988, to wit: “Where a teacher or other person providing religious or patriotic instruction receives a written request signed by a parent of a student that the student be excluded from religious or patriotic instruction or exercises, or both, the teacher or other person shall permit the student (a) to leave the classroom or place where the instruction or exercises are taking place for the duration of the instruction or exercises, or (b) to remain in the classroom or place without taking part in the instruction or exercises.”
Has anyone heard of this provision of the School Act being a problem, or being widely used or abused? (Indeed, one wonders if in our Americanized post-911 Canada, it would even be possible to pass a provision today allowing parents to opt their children out of patriotic instruction!)
Bill 44 extends this parental right to school subjects concerning sexuality and sexual orientation. Arguably, doing so in a piece of legislation other than the School Act is sloppy, confusing and bad law, but it is not nearly as sexy as an issue as maligning the good name of the Arkansas Department of Education.
Indeed, probably the worst thing about this legislation is the requirement for school boards to inform parents in writing about everything they plan to teach that deals explicitly with religion.
Since, as we all know, the religiously minded interpret everything as dealing explicitly with religion (what you wear, where you plant things, how you cut your hair, how you speak to your parents, how you care for your livestock, what you eat and drink, just to give a few examples from the Judeo-Christian traditions), this has the potential to create a major problem for school boards.
Moreover, by placing this in human rights legislation, instead of in the School Act where it belongs, the door has been opened to expensive Human Rights Commission proceedings if parents feel their religious rights have been violated because a teacher mentioned, say, a recipe for pork roast, the age of a rock, or talked about working on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday.
Since any problem like this affecting a governmental body inevitably results in higher taxes, this portion of Bill 44 should be amended at once to reflect the more sensible complaints-based approach taken in the School Act.
As for the rest, it’s a tempest in a teapot.