Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Culture, Religion and Curriculum Lessons from the 'Three Books' Controversy in Surrey, BC

Academic journal article The Canadian Geographer

Culture, Religion and Curriculum Lessons from the 'Three Books' Controversy in Surrey, BC

Article excerpt

   I find that the separation of the church and the
   state is one of the most beautiful inventions of
   modern times (Pierre Pettigrew, Foreign Minister,
   2005, commenting on the same-sex marriage debate
   in Canada).


In April 1997 the Board of Surrey School District in British Columbia enacted a resolution declining to approve three books portraying same-sex parents. This decision, made in response to religious objections from local parents, meant that the books could not be used as part of the family life education curriculum in Kindergarten and Grade One classrooms within the District's 99 elementary schools. It prompted a prolonged and often heated debate in a province where schools are required by statute to 'be conducted on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles'. Concerns over the legality of the resolution were referred to the courts, with a final decision being handed down by the Supreme Court of Canada in December 2002.

This article reviews the 6 years of controversy that surrounded the Surrey School Board's actions, and the ways in which the issues raised were framed and resolved by the courts. It suggests that geographical categories--in particular, the distinction between public and private--are central to cultural and legal conflict over religion's place in the curricula and governance of public schools. It also employs the concept of 'culture war'--developed by Hunter (1991)--to help make sense of stakeholder positions in the 'three books' debate.

The content, purpose and methods of public education are matters of widespread interest. Public schools have been characterized as 'the primary institutional means of reproducing community and national identity for succeeding generations' (Hunter 1991, 198), in part because they are places in which most children 'are compelled ... [to] undergo a decade and more of group socialization' (Bocking 1995, 227). Since at least the mid-nineteenth century, they have been seen as vital tools for instilling shared values, and a common identity, in children from diverse backgrounds. However, the place of religion within public schools has been an enduring point of controversy, including in Canada (Clark 1968, Dickinson and Mackay 1989; Sweet 1997; Smith and Foster 2000). In spite of this prominence, geographers have had little to say about the issue of religion in schools (but see Merrett 1999), possibly reflecting a wider disciplinary wariness of issues with significant legal dimensions (Blomley 2002).

Today, secular public education in Canada, as well as other Western nations, especially the United States, is being challenged by conservative stakeholders, and in particular by evangelical Christians. The latter's objections are numerous and wide ranging, but often centre on the claim that Christian ethics, beliefs and practices are excluded from the classroom, while secular and humanist ideas pervade every aspect of instruction. These values are said to subvert the rights of parents to instil Biblical morality, lead children away from God and constitute state sponsorship of a metaphysical code. Such claims, this article notes, challenge the liberal-secular state, which has sought to protect itself from the transcendent claims of religion through 'the two-fold strategy of secularizing politics and privatizing religion' (Chaplin 2000, 625-626).

Conflicts such as that sparked by the Surrey School Board's books resolution go to the heart of contemporary debates about the place of religion in public education. This article contends that the public/private distinction--a concept routinely invoked in efforts to order society and space--is critical to understanding what is at stake in these debates, and the broader cultural conflict of which they are part. The claims advanced by stakeholders, and the responses of decision-making institutions such as school boards and courts, are not only cultural and constitutional, but also inherently geographical. …

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