On August 13th, the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario released its decision on a human rights application, R.C. v. District School Board of Niagara. The applicants, who describe themselves as atheists, alleged that the Board’s original and amended policies were discriminatory because of creed, contrary to the Ontario Human Rights Code. The original policy allowed only the Gideons to distribute religious literature to grade five students with parental consent. The amended policy granted discretion to approve only the distribution of “religious publications” with parental consent. The Ontario Human Rights Commission was an intervenor in the application.
In its decision, the Tribunal found that protection against discrimination based on creed extended to atheism. The Tribunal stated that prohibiting discrimination because of creed includes “ensuring that individuals do not experience discrimination in employment, services and the other social areas in the Code because one rejects one, many or all religions’ beliefs and practices or believes there is no deity.”
The Tribunal held that the Board’s policy permitting only the Gideons to distribute religious literature in schools was discriminatory, and that the Board’s revised policy and practice did not comply with the Code. It considered a number of factors, including the vulnerability of young school children and the fact that the amended policy placed the Board in the position of judging the validity of particular religions and religious texts.
The Tribunal did not find that exposure to religion in schools violates rights under the Code. It held that that allowing students to participate in religious activities, or receive religious materials, outside the classroom is not discriminatory provided that “participation is optional, no pressure is applied on students to participate, the school is neutral and it makes clear that it is facilitating such optional activities for all creeds, not promoting any particular creed.”
The Tribunal ordered that unless the Board develops a new policy that complies with Code principles, it cannot distribute religious publications in its schools. The Board has six months to develop a new policy.
Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner, commented, “The decision makes it clear that Code protections against discrimination based on creed can cover persons who are not religious, including atheists. It also affirms Code values of diversity, equality and inclusion, recognizing a legitimate place for the expression of diverse religious ideas and practices within public schools and institutions.”
The Commission is currently updating its 1996 policy on creed, and decisions such as this one are helpful in its development.
For more information:
Senior Communications Officer
Ontario Human Rights Commission