Prayers in Peterborough go to court

Canadian Atheist blogger Veronica Abbass has taken her opposition with the Peterborough city council’s practice of reciting Christian prayers to court.

Her lawyer, Dan Mayo, is a Humanist Officiant and is active in the Humanist Association of Ottawa.

A woman is taking the City of Peterborough to court over the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer to open council meetings.

Veronica Abbass is hoping the City will decide to stop using the prayer now but if it does not, she is willing to take the case before a judge.

The City now has 30 days to respond, says her lawyer, Daniel Mayo.

Mr. Mayo explains the City was warned twice that the use of the Lord’s Prayer goes against Ontario law — the first time in a letter from Ms Abbass, the second time in a letter from Mr. Mayo on her behalf.

“It’s an explicitly Christian prayer…it’s straight from the Gospels,” Mr. Mayo says.

Good work Veronica!

Additional details can be read on this Peterborough Examiner article.

CFI Canada skips critical thinking

Last week a story broke from Nova Scotia that a high school student was suspended for wearing a t-shirt that said “Life is wasted without Jesus”.

The story went that the student wore the same shirt several days in a row (let’s assume he washed it or had multiple ones and wasn’t suspended for stinking up the place) and was suspended when he refused to obey a demand by the school’s principal that he no longer wear the shirt.

Quick to stand up for free speech and religious freedom, Centre for Inquiry Canada released a press release condemning the school.

"While CFI sponsored the Atheist Bus Campaign, we are a strong champion of freedom of speech and freedom of religion," said National Communications Director Justin Trottier. "This shirt causes no harm and is a perfectly acceptable contribution to the marketplace of ideas."

I could point out again how CFI did not sponsor the Atheist Bus Campaign (except in Kelowna) – the Freethought Association of Canada did – but that’s not my point here.

With any sensational news story, I think we all ought to put our skeptic hats and try to figure out what is really going on before we rush to comment. And in this case, it turns out there’s quite a bit more there.

Students said William Swinimer has been preaching and making them feel uncomfortable, and the shirt was the last straw so they complained.

"He’s told kids they’ll burn in hell if they don’t confess themselves to Jesus," student Riley Gibb-Smith said.

Katelyn Hiltz, student council vice-president, agreed the controversy didn’t begin with the T-shirt.

"It started with him preaching his religion to kids and then telling them to go to hell. A lot of kids don’t want to deal with this anymore," she said.

Furthermore, the students father has begun pulling William from any class beyond the basics.

"He will not attend this school unless they are having reading, writing and arithmetic — good old-fashioned academics," he said, waving a New Testament bible. "When they’re having forums, when they’re having other extra-curricular activity, he will not attend that school."

I guess that means no evolution, sex-ed, or critical thinking for poor William.

This background doesn’t change the fact that suspended a student for wearing a t-shirt is wrong, but it does give the context of why such a seemingly disproportionate measure was taken. The school was fed up with an obnoxious Jesus freak shoving his religion down everyone’s throats. The school administrators have a duty to ensure that all students feel welcome and safe at the school and are able to learn, if one student is compromising that security, then they’re bound to find a way to deal with it.

If anyone else had worn that t-shirt, they would have been fine, but couple it to a continued campaign of disruptions, and I can understand and potentially support the school’s actions.

Of course, we likely still don’t have a complete story. We don’t know the extent that William pushed his religion on others and we don’t know how many people complained about it. We likely never will.

But this is precisely why organizations that want to maintain some semblance of credibility on these issues ought to hesitate before crying wolf. It’s nice to be the first to comment, but without the full context, one can come off as ignorant and closed-minded.

Friendly Atheist and high school math teach Hemant Mehta was also generally supportive of the suspension.

Successful in Ottawa, Religious Right turns to Edmonton

My shortage in blogging lately hasn’t been for lack of topics.

This past week has seen blow up and scandal plague Alberta politics, as the boobs come off the Wildrose bus. First, we have a compilation of quotes by Danielle Smith shaping her as a Christian Libertarian, then we have her denouncing established climate science, plus she has refused to chasten her candidates for slandering the Edmonton Public School Board and damning homosexuals to burn in “the lake of fire” or for saying that being white is an advantage.

It’s well established that Conservative Party of Canada insiders, like former strategist Tom Flanagan and past Edmonton-Strathcona candidate Ryan Hastman, are working closely with the Wildrose Party. So we shouldn’t be surprised to see the social conservative forces, fresh off their recent Ottawa takeover, are feeling threatened by a new Albertan premier who started to put a bit too much emphasis on the progressive in Progressive Conservative.

Continue reading Successful in Ottawa, Religious Right turns to Edmonton

The NDP responds on the Office of Religious Freedom

It’s rare to get a response from a politician when you send them an email. It’s even rarer to get anything more than a form letter.

But I’ve never seen anything where an MP from across the country takes the time to read my concerns in their entirety and responds in kind to each point.

Last week, I mentioned that the NDP are still chasing down leads on the Office of Religious Freedom and after writing the post, I sent an email to Hélène Laverdière, NDP MP for Laurier – Ste-Marie, and Official Opposition Critic for Foreign Affairs. My email and her eloquent and detailed response are below the fold.

Continue reading The NDP responds on the Office of Religious Freedom

Alberta Education: An election bomb?

Alberta is ramping up for an election and while busty buses and money-for-nothing schemes are dominating the scandals, the new Education Act may be the thing that pisses enough people off to actually care about how this election turns out.

Alberta’s education laws haven’t been updated in decades and given last year’s slow resolution of bring secular schooling to Morinville, it’s long overdue. Yet the proposed act is drawing criticism on all sides.

The Catholic School Trustees Association fears that this is the first step to destroying their century-long privilege. Specifically, the act will allow the government to force secular and Catholic schools to share space when necessary and to amalgamate school boards.

Meanwhile, homeschoolers rallied 1500 people for a protest because they don’t want to have to teach they’re children to obey the Alberta Human Rights Act (seriously).  To placate these religious homeschooling extremists, the education minister caved and “offered an amendment on Monday to the preamble of the bill, recognizing parents’ right to raise their children within their ethical and religious traditions.” This was not enough to satisfy those who believe we can simply put two words like parents and rights together and suddenly have a codified law.

Nevertheless, the Alberta Liberal Party (who are the fourth party in terms of the number of candidates nominated) is skeptical of the government and fears it will further surrender to the Religious Right.

Kent Hehr, MLA for Calgary Buffalo, asked the education minister , Tom Lukaszuk, whether the province would soon provide “public funding of a school of Scientology or Druids or a school for witches and Wiccans?” Lukaszuk parroted the standard lines of “choice in education” in response.

Hehr pressed further asking if Lukaszuk was “comfortable with parents teaching that homosexuality is a sin or that evolution is not real?” Sadly, the education minister either dodged the question at best or admitted that parents have a right to poison the minds of their children.

Please, listen to the answer. I am comfortable with the fact that parents have the right of teaching their children and passing on their family values, their religious beliefs, and their morality. This is what we do as parents. Whether my daughter comes from a public school or whether she stays at home all day long, I still take responsibility for teaching her what is right and what is wrong, so that aspect has nothing to do with homeschooling. That is what we all as parents have the primary right to do, and we continue doing that.

Choice in education is a smokescreen for wasting money on inefficient two-tiered school systems. Alberta (and BC) currently grant ridiculous amounts of money to private schools, which can discriminate in enrolment and hiring under this absurd system. Furthermore, the United Nations Human Rights Committee condemned the separate school system in Alberta, Saksatchewan, and Ontario as discriminatory and called for the ending of separated school funding.

It will be interesting to see if the majority of Albertans (represented by neither the Homeschoolers or Catholic schools Associations) will stand up for secular, adequately funded education. Hell, it will be interesting alone to see if any party is that brave – the Alberta Party already missed that boat with their platform [pdf].

NDP fights for secularism

With the recent robocall scandal, upcoming budget, and NDP leadership race, it’s easy to forget some of the other controversies that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have thrown us over the past year.

Luckily, we have representatives like NDP foreign affairs critic Hélène Laverdière, who continue to work to uncover answers. Specifically, she submitted an Order Paper question on the Office of Religious Freedoms that has been mired in mystery since Harper’s election promise and subsequent founding.

According to CBC correspondent Kady O’Malley (who you must follow on Twitter), these are designed to ask “all manner of questions on the administration of government – specifically, questions that, by their very nature, were simply too technical or otherwise unwieldy to be answered during [question period].” Basically, boring stuff that still merits some investigation. It’s less theatrical than question period but often equally important.

Continue reading NDP fights for secularism

Religions taking advantage of children

It’s an easy topic to write about and these three articles speak for themselves mostly, so I’m only going to give limited commentary on three pieces from the past couple days that definitely classify as religions taking advantage of (if not abusing) children.

First, the Vancouver Sun mistakenly takes the view that science and Christian lobby groups deserve equal weight when presenting research. Their article titled “Research mixed on whether parents should be banned from spanking” does a solid job of presenting the scientific evidence of the harms of corporal punishment of children, but then goes and quotes the homophobic Institute of Marriage and Family Canada (at least it identifies it as a Christian right group spun off of Focus on the Family) who want the right to beat their kids. It’s telling that the following day this article was republished on the Ottawa Citizen under the more accurate title, “Time for parents to disarm.”

Next, we have a good news-bad news story, also from the Vancouver Sun. The good news is that the Delta school board has kicked religious proselytizers out of its classrooms, while the bad news is that many volunteer evangelicals remain in schools across the province – including in Kitsilano Secondary School (near my home). The BC school act makes it explicitly clear that our schools are to be secular, so any move from volunteering to preaching will hopefully be rooted by our teachers and school administrators.

Finally, the British Humanist Association has highlighted some research undertaken by the Guardian which showed that publicly funded faith schools are discriminating against poor students.  This research is quite relevant in Canada where several provinces provide funding to private schools (BC and Alberta) and others provide full funding to separate Catholic school boards (Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario). It would be interesting to do a similar study here to try to prove if such systemic discrimination exists here as well.

Do churches influence your vote?

According to a new paper in the International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, where you vote may influence how you vote.

The suggestion is that visual cues of churches or religious buildings lead people to vote more conservatively, “and the effect seems to hold, whether you’re Christian, Muslim or agnostic, progressive, independent or conservative.”

This is an intriguing suggestion because if you’re anything like me, you always resent when they hold a poll or public forum in a church.

This is also a very testable hypothesis, outside of psychology. Elections Canada publishes poll-by-poll results, so one merely has to cross reference which polls were held in churches with those that weren’t. There’s 308 separate electoral districts to run the analysis for, and in each district there should be a decent number of religious and secular polls to contrast. With this much data, it should be possible to see if church voters are more likely to vote Conservative than NDP, Liberal, or Green.

Perhaps if I get really bored while job hunting, I may try to do the numbers for my own riding.

Jason Kenney shores up Islamophobia

Citizenship and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney spoke with Canadian Muslims to demonstrate the supposed widespread support for his recent decision to ban burkas at citizenship ceremonies.

Speaking at a Muslim Canadian Congress event honouring his “courageous decision,” Mr. Kenney said polling shows that eight out of 10 Canadians agreed with the decision while only 14% were opposed.

Sadly, neither Kenney nor the National Post provided any evidence for this statistic, so we can’t actually verify it ourselves.

Regardless, I’m still mixed on my own feelings about these decisions. Obviously forcing women to conceal their skin is an affront to feminism and equality but forcing them to undress can be equally offensive to one’s freedoms. I’m not really comfortable with a government that tells its citizens what they can and cannot wear.

Arguments aside, this opposition always seems to come down as a political distraction. It always seems to be presented as a solution that’s looking for a problem.

How many Muslim women were taking the oath while wearing a veil?

One per year? Two?

Without numbers and evidence – which we know that this government despises – all I can chalk these announcements up to is blatant fear-mongering and Islamophobia. Recall that Harper thinks Islamicism is the major threat to Canadian security.

Stand against homophobia on the Vancouver School Board

Robin Perelle, writing for Xtra!, gives a good background on the swell of opposition to anti-homophobia policy in the lower mainland.

Basically, NPA trustees Ken Denike and Sophia Woo have been caught red-handed in videos lying to the Christian Social Concern Fellowship that Vancouver has no anti-homophobia policy, when in fact one was passed in 2004. They’ve also been trotting out the “parent’s rights” arguments, long used by the Christian Right who want the right to continue to keep their children as ignorant and biggoted as themselves.

Vancouver’s LGBTQ community isn’t taking this one lying down.

On Monday evening, the first Vancouver School Board meeting was held and a resolution was put forward calling on the VSB to reaffirm its support for the policy and to censure trutees Denike and Woo. The resolution passed with the strong Vision-COPE majority but the crowd was split between pro- and anti-gay protesters.

There is now a Facebook call for people to send letters to Denike, Woo, and VSB chair Patti Bacchus, calling for the NPA trustees to resign. Please consider sending this message (or a modified version) to the emails listed below.

Dear Trustees Woo and Denike,

You have failed in your position within the Vancouver School Board. You have infracted and abused your powers and position, and have tried to spread hate within our society.

-You have made many students feel unsafe and uncomfortable within their schools.
-Publicly disagreed with the ‘Anti Homophobia Policies’ that were put in place by VSB (2004)
-Accused the ‘Out in Schools’ program for showing pornographic images.
-Are closely related and in support with the Parents Voice Committee, Who are known for their Anti-Homosexual campaigns.

I do not support your actions and views on this issue. The messages you and your groups are spreading are inhumane and dishonest. I do not want people in my city to feel unsafe or unwanted, Vancouver is meant to be a city that accepts differences and respects culture and diversity.

Because of these actions you have taken, I am asking you to resign from your position as Trustee as you have failed to protect all the students within the school board.