Parents each awarded $5,000 after B.C. preschool insists on retaining religious references in classroom

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      In an 89-page judgment, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has ruled that Bowen Island Montessori School discriminated against two parents.

      Gary Mangel and Mai Yasué, both atheists, filed a complaint on behalf of an unnamed child who was at the school for a year.

      The parents, who are both postsecondary educators, objected to the school's practice of acknowledging certain religious holidays as part of the curriculum.

      As a result of their concerns, the school required them to sign a document declaring that they would accept all of its cultural programs as a precondition for the child to be enrolled in 2015.

      Tribunal member Barbara Korenkiewicz ruled that this constituted discrimination under section 8 of the B.C. Human Rights Code and awarded each parent $5,000.

      This section prohibits discrimination in "accommodation, service and facility" on the basis of race, colour, ancestry, place of origin, religion, marital or family status, physical or mental disability, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or age.

      Korenkiewicz found, however, that the parents' claim was "tenuous at best" that they were ostracized in the community because of the school's refusal to confirm the registration of the child.

      Mangel and Yasué's claims of discrimination against individuals associated with the school were dismissed.

      One of the respondents, teacher Helen Davenport, testified that the school based its approach on the philosophy of Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori, who died in 1952. Montessori favoured children becoming attuned to the interconnectedness of life.

      According to the ruling, the Bowen Island Montessori School classroom is divided into five centres that promote practical, sensorial, language, math, and culture—each with books and other learning materials to advance understanding.

      A dispute emerged in November 2014 over whether the school should spend money on clay elfs for the upcoming Christmas.

      Mangel, then a director of the school, sent an email to other board members emphasizing that not all parents celebrated Christmas. 

      When a board member responded that perhaps Hanukkah could also be recognized, Mangel replied that he disagreed with any religious activities being incorporated in the preschool.

      "Having the kids do these things seems inappropriate, given their absolute inability to understand the religious and political symbolism associated with those acts," Mangel wrote. "As Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion) has written, there is no such thing as a Muslim, Jewish, or Christian, They are simply too young to be making these sorts of decisions."

      He ended his note by asking anyone who was offended to please accept his apologies.

      Davenport testified that she felt Mangel's email was "patronizing and aggressive", according to the ruling.

      She replied by email saying there would be discussions at the preschool about Christmas, as well as equal time for Hanukkah and Kwanzaa.

      "There is an offering of information but no insistence of belief," she wrote. "This kind of information sharing is a key component to Montessori philosophy. We call it cosmic education and it is to offer world knowledge, encourage wonder and celebrate individuality and uniqueness."

      The ruling noted that Mangel felt "utterly shocked" that the unnamed child would learn about the birth of Jesus Christ at a secular school. He and Yasué also doubted that the school would give equal time to Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, given that nothing was being bought in connection with those events.

      Yasué sent an email to the school in late November listing many other celebrations that students could learn about.

      They included International Human Rights Day, the Japanese ritual of Oosouji (cleaning up the house or school), the international day to honour victims of the Holocaust, the Chinese Lantern Festival, International Women's Day, the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, Earth Day, and National Aboriginal Day (now National Indigenous Peoples Day), among others.

      Yasué testified that she was trying to broaden the discussion beyond her family to achieving greater inclusiveness for everyone.

      In May 2015 at a parent-teacher conference, Mangel mentioned his disappointment that a new approach wasn't being implemented even as Easter and Valentine's Day had been celebrated in the classroom.

      The following month, the school sent the parents a letter seeking "confirmation of understanding and acceptance of all aspects of our program".

      According to the ruling, the parents didn't understand why they received this letter.

      "Mr. Mangel testified that he thought there must be some kind of miscommunication because he did not want 'cultural' aspects of the program removed," the judgement states. "Rather, it was the 'religious' components that he wanted removed."

      Yasué testified that her interpretation was that "she could not think differently and must state her full acceptance of the program".

      This made her feel like she was being "silenced".