Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36, Supreme Court of Canada (20 December 2002)
The plaintiff teacher sought legal intervention when the Surrey School Board refused to approve three books that depicted same-sex partnerships because they thought the books would cause controversy and expose children to ideas that conflicted with the beliefs of their parents. The School Board resolution was quashed by the Supreme Court of British Columbia for violating Section 76 of the School Act, because religion had significantly influenced the Board’s decision but was not within its mandate to consider. The Court of Appeals set aside that decision and ruled that the resolution had been within the Board’s mandate because it was based on the views of the parents and the community in which the school was located. The Supreme Court of Canada then granted review.
The plaintiff asked the Surrey School Board to approve three books for his kindergarten class which depicted same-sex parents. These books could not be used to teach the family life education curriculum without the Board’s approval. Shortly thereafter the Board adopted a resolution that materials from gay and lesbian organisations would not be approved. As a result, the three books were prohibited, and other resources such as library books, posters, and pamphlets were also removed from district schools.
Whether the Surrey School Board could lawfully deny a teacher permission to use children’s books that depicted same-sex parents because such books might expose children to ideas that conflicted with their parents’ religious beliefs, and caused controversy.
Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
The School Act 1996, Section 76 (all “schools must be conducted on strictly secular and non-sectarian principles” and the “highest morality must be inculcated, but no religious dogma or creed is to be taught in a school…”).
Reasoning of the Court
The Court found that the appropriate standard of review was reasonableness. It noted, first, that no privative clause existed for the Board’s decisions. In addition, while the Board had considerable expertise in balancing the interests of diverse parental groups and disparate family situations, this was a human rights issue that concerned the relative value of some beliefs over others. The Board’s decision contradicted the School Act’s requirement of tolerance, respect for diversity, mutual understanding, and acceptance of all family models. Where this occurred, a high level of supervision and intervention was required and permitted. Lastly, the Court found that the Board had acted as though the issue was essentially about balancing community interests and should have sought to balance the religious interest of some against the interest of tolerance and respect for diversity. Having concluded that the standard of review was reasonableness, the Court determined whether, under that standard, the Board’s decision went beyond its legislative mandate.
Section 76 of the School Act promoted secularism and tolerance. The Board was entitled to take into consideration the views of parents, even their religious views, when deciding a case; but the secularism requirement of Section 76 ruled out “any attempt to use the religious view of one part of the community to exclude from consideration the values of the other members of the community”. In other words, religious values were not weightier than other values to which members of the district were attached, and “[r]eligious views that deny equal recognition and respect to the members of a minority group cannot be used to exclude the concerns of the minority group”.
Importantly, the Court found that the Board acted outside its School Act mandate by not giving the same recognition and respect to same-sex parented families as it gave to parents who considered same-sex relationships immoral. “Parental views, however important, cannot override the imperative place upon the British Columbia public schools to mirror the diversity of the community and teach tolerance and understanding of difference.”
Finally, the Court found that the Board had departed from its own guidelines, which required the curriculum to reflect the experience of its students. It had not considered the relevance of the materials in question to the curriculum or the needs of children from same-sex parented families. The Board failed to meet its mandate, and applied a criterion of necessity rather than the mandated criterion of enrichment, diversity, and tolerance.
Considering the educational system’s objectives of promoting tolerance and non-sectarianism, the Court found that the Board’s decision was unreasonable. The Court ordered the Board to reconsider the issue in light of these principles and in accordance with the School Act.
Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36, Supreme Court of Canada (full text of judgment, PDF)