Atheist couple who protested Christmas classroom decorations awarded compensation

UNSPLASH/Sean Wells | UNSPLASH/Sean Wells

A Canadian atheist couple who protested against religious-themed classroom decorations was awarded a compensation.

The British Colombia Human Rights Tribunal awarded $12,000 to Gary Mangel and Mai Yasué after they claimed that their daughter's enrollment in the school was threatened due to their views.

As Tribunal member Barbara Korenkiewicz explained in her decision on Tuesday, the dispute began in 2014 when the outspoken atheist parents complained that Bowen Island Montessori School included Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations in classroom decorations.

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Mangel told BIMS board members that it's not appropriate to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other religious/political event at preschool. He said his child is only 3 and thus "cannot consent to being involved in decorating military wreaths or Christmas trees or lighting Hanukkah candles."

Mangel also cited atheist author Richard Dawkins and argued that kids do not have the ability "to understand the religious and political symbolism associated with those acts."

After their complaint, the school asked the parents to sign a letter, affirming their "understanding and acceptance" of all aspects of the school's cultural program before their child's registration for the following year would be confirmed.

The couple accused BIMS of discrimination on the bases of religion, race, ancestry and family status. Yasué is Japanese and Mangel is Jewish.

According to court documents, longtime teacher at BIMS, identified as Ms. Davenport, "testified that the materials in the classroom are intended to offer information only and there is no insistence on what each child does. Rather, each child is guided by their own interest." The teacher also said cultural celebrations are done in the classroom throughout the year.

"She testified that celebrations bring the greater world at large into the classroom and provide a way to offer information about the world. She testified that the curriculum is a reflection of the families at BIMS and the greater community," the court document states.

Korenkiewicz said in her decision that she was "not persuaded that multiculturalism is BIMS’ primary purpose, but rather a portion of one component of its program. The fact the issue became the focus of discussions between Dr. Yasué and Mr. Mangel on the one hand, and BIMS on the other, does not elevate the cultural element of the BIMS program to one of primacy.”

“Second, as already noted, this case is not about a challenge to BIMS curriculum or its approach to teaching about various cultural celebrations rooted in religious practices of diverse origin,” she added.

”At its core, it is about a letter which held Child A’s registration hostage to a demand.”

Korenkiewicz dismissed the parents' claims that they were being discriminated against by individuals associated with the school.

"I have given little weigh to the evidence that Dr. Yasué and Mr. Mangel say links their perception of ostracism in the community to the conduct of the Respondents which is the subject of this decision. I found it tenuous at best," she added.

Stressing that the case was not about the cultural aspects of the BIMS curriculum, Korenkiewicz decided to award $12,000 to the couple due to the negative effects they experienced from the school's refusal to confirm the child's enrollment unless they signed the letter.

BIMS School Board President Maria Turnbull told CBC News that the $12,000 awarded to the family is a “meaningful sum,” and that officials would have to examine how to pay for it.

"What the decision provides is a level of certainty that is valued by the school, and we look forward to getting 100 percent back to our focus on the young people,” Turnbull said.

Follow Stoyan Zaimov on Facebook: CPSZaimov

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