It has not been the finest of hours. A parent complained to the Eastern School District about the giant cross children had to pass on the way into St. Matthew’s School. The school district said the cross would come down over the summer. All manner of righteous chaos ensued.
Let’s get the first part out of the way quickly.
Any way you slice it, the unknown parent in this case is right — and it’s just as well that they’re unknown, because they have been pilloried in a decidedly unchristian way.
The bile that has been poured out over this issue is nothing short of astounding for the 21st century. The parent has been derided as being a come-from-away, has had phone-in callers on radio shows decide they are Muslim or any host of other religions and, in short, has been demonized. It’s a pretty sad show — and it’s not exactly turning the other cheek.
And then there’s that chimera of chimeras: the “What about our rights?” canard that often comes forward when the majority suddenly doesn’t get its way.
Here are the facts about that: parents and children in a secular system shouldn’t have to face any religious symbolism that represents only one faith — in a secular system, no particular faith should be represented as primary. It’s a simple concept that lawyers for the Eastern School District recognized quickly; faced with a court challenge, they would lose.
But on the flip side, the fact that the cross is to come down is not discrimination against parents who happen to hold a Christian faith.
The absence of a symbol is not a sign of discrimination. If, for argument’s sake, the mystery parent was demanding a new and different religious symbol be placarded on the side of the school, then other cross-supporting parents at St. Matthew’s could argue that their rights to religious freedom were being abridged.
The problem is that there has been a mix of ways that the religious past of many of our public institutions has continued to be recognized. After the province fully took over the eduction system, some symbols vanished. Others didn’t.
Leary’s Brook Junior High was Eugene Vaters Academy when it was part of the Pentecostal system. Eugene Vaters, somewhat ironically, was a Newfoundland Pentecostal leader who not only campaigned for equal funding for Pentecostal schools, but also argued for the value of school amalgamation. (In a 1954 brief, Vaters wrote, “We don’t think we shall find it difficult to work with others in common amalgamated schools, where it is deemed advisable, as we have never desired the Pentecostal schools for its own sake, nor to help bolster our religious standpoint. We believe in freedom with co-operation.” Yep: 1954.)
The Vaters name was dropped.
It was different in other schools. Holy Heart of Mary still boasts a large cross on the front of its auditorium — something that, along with the school’s name, could also be challenged as promoting one specific faith over others.
And it’s not just schools. St. Clare’s Hospital is part of Eastern Health, a non-religious, government-run health-care provider. Yet the newer part of the hospital boasts a huge cross running down one side of the building, and on the older buildings facing LeMarchant Road, a brightly lit rooftop cross faces out towards the harbour, a glowing cross held stoutly in place by reinforcement straps.
And there’s probably no reason why those crosses and names couldn’t remain, if the issue had been dealt with differently.
What could have been done instead of the current cross fuss?
Well, perhaps some clear-cut recognition that our schools — and at least one of our hospitals — have a past, a present and a future. Their pasts may have rested in denominational funding and support, and the symbols that remain could have been marked as exactly that. The cross outside St. Matthew’s, like the cross and the name of Holy Heart of Mary, like the several crosses at St. Clare’s, could have been marked by a plaque or other in-school information explaining the valuable roles of this province’s churches in both education and health care.
Identifying those religious roles as history, explaining why the symbols remain to honour that history, but also explaining that the present is a different place — that might have made an acceptable proactive compromise. And, in the future, as schools move and change, names and symbols would drop off and fade, much the way the more stridently religious teachers from the old denominational system have gradually retired.
Instead, though, the past has hung on as if it still represented the present.
There was a time to make that kind of decision, to clearly mark the line between now and then.
It’s probably too late.
To make that kind of move now would only look like rearguard action — caught out, it would be trying to justify the status quo, an effort to stuff the genie back into the bottle, for both sides.
With the bad blood up and running, the simple solution won’t work. Fact is, there are those reading this column who got to “the unknown parent in this case is right” and started heating the tar and sharpening the pitchforks for my hide right there and then.
But a forward-looking decision years ago could have put this entire dispute on ice forever.
You know what they say about decisions: if you don’t make one, it will go ahead and make itself.
And it might not end up being the best one you could have made.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.