Educators and human rights experts in Alberta are worried that a proposed change to human rights legislation could make it tough to teach a number of controversial subjects.
The change says parents should be notified when classes “include subject matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or sexual orientation,” and should have the right to ask that their child sit out that part of the class.
The term “religion” is extremely broad and could edge its way into almost anything that comes up in the classroom, said Dan Shapiro, research associate with the Calgary-based Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership.
“It’ll be like a kind of Monty Python skit. You have to say: ‘Well, today we have to think about the Hindu student’s going to object to this and tomorrow the Jewish student to this and then the Catholic student to this,’ ” said Shapiro.
“It’ll be madly off in all directions. (Teachers) are strapped enough for resources and time to do their job properly and help educate children.”
Frank Bruseker, head of the Alberta Teachers Association, said he’s also concerned about what the new rules could mean. He’s worried that some parents might think mentioning different classes of worms would constitute a reference to evolution. He said a discussion of ancient geologic formations can’t be had without mentioning the world is billions of years old, much more than a literal reading of the Bible would suggest.
Meanwhile, history and literature from around the world are chockablock full of references to religious upheaval.
“Religion is kind of a fuzzy thing, in a sense, in that what some people see as religion others might not,” Bruseker said.
Opposition parties have hammered the government on the issue, saying the province is headed back to the time of the 1925 Scopes trial, in which a high school biology teacher in Tennessee was tried for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Premier Ed Stelmach conceded to reporters last week that the provision could be used to pull students out of classes dealing with evolution if parents preferred their kids be taught what’s in the Bible instead.
“The parents would have the opportunity to make that choice,” he told a news conference.
But Lindsay Blackett, the Tory minister responsible for human rights, said in an interview that the intention of the law is to only allow parents to pull children out when the curriculum specifically covers religions, something that only happens for a few hours each school year.
“It’s talking about religion (such as) Hindu, or Muslim, or that type of religion, not … the curriculum with respect to, for instance, evolution,” he said. “That’s science and we’re not arguing science.”
The rule wouldn’t apply to any topics that come up spontaneously in a classroom, he said.
“It’s not discussion, it’s curriculum. You cannot be the thought police, and we would never ever advocate that.”
No other provincial human rights legislation touches on parental rights in education, said Linda McKay-Panos, a human rights law expert and head of the Alberta Civil Liberties Research Centre at the University of Calgary.
Human rights law is in place to protect against discrimination on the basis of a number of factors, such as race and gender. It’s hard to figure out what type of discrimination is being targeted with the proposed change, McKay-Panos said, suggesting the issue instead falls under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“It’s kind of an odd place to put all this,” she said. “They could have interpreted the charter already to include that protection if they want to exempt their children by freedom of religion.”
The government chose to put the concept into human rights law because it is considered more entrenched than school policy, and the government believes it is a deeply held right, Blackett said.
The proposed bill has passed a first reading and will be debated next week in the legislature.
Blackett said if people believe the wording of the bill is unclear and could lead to complaints beyond what the law is intended to cover, the government could tighten up the language before it passes.
“If that’s the main worry than we can certainly narrow that down, we’re reasonable people.”
Even the question of where the students who can’t hear a certain lesson will go is a problem, said Bruseker.
Teachers are required to watch over the children in their care and to send a student out to the hallway alone isn’t always a possibility . Libraries often aren’t staffed anymore, and office staff already have their hands full.
It also raises the question of whether a child who sits out portions of the curriculum will still write a provincial exam and whether missing key pieces will be a problem.
Most importantly, it calls into question the purpose of a public education system, said Bruseker.
A zoologist by training, Bruseker said he’s well aware that he’s unlikely to change the mind of someone who strongly believes in creationism. But teaching kids to talk about ideas and listening to others is what matters.
“Isn’t it more healthy to have that discussion and create the opportunity for kids to deal with these controversial issues and have the discussion in class?” he asked.
“Isn’t that, the development of critical thinking skills, isn’t that really what public education is supposed to be all about?”
– The Canadian Press, photo courtesy of Kevin Dooley