Was a secular system the referendum’s intention?

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In Russell Wangersky’s column “At cross purposes,” on the controversy about the cross at St. Matthew’s school, he referred to our school system as secular. I’m sorry to say he appears to be correct — but is that what the people of Newfoundland and Labrador voted for when they voted on Sept. 2, 1997 to end the denominational system?

The referendum read as follows: “Do you support a single school system where all children, regardless of their religious affiliation, attend the same schools where opportunities for religious education and observances are provided?”

No reference to a secular system but plenty of reference to a guarantee of religious education as well as religious observances in our schools.

Just before the referendum vote, in an effort to make sure that everyone understood the full implication of the referendum question, then-premier Brian Tobin publicly said the following: “Let there be no doubt what government is proposing. It means nothing less than the removal of the churches from the governing of the schools. It would mean the existing Term 17, which sets out denominational rights in the Constitution, would be completely replaced. A new term, making the legislature responsible for the administration of schools and giving students the opportunity for religious education and observances, will be passed.”

Once again, there is no reference to a purely secular system, but there is reference to maintaining religious education as well as religious observances.

Premier Tobin said this in the context of a population that was overwhelmingly Christian and had some of the highest rates of church attendance in the country.


Then, the vote

Shortly after this reassuring statement, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians (by a large majority) voted to get rid of the denominational system which had become inefficient and wasteful. I do not believe they voted to eliminate their faith from their schools.

Nor — it seems — did our politicians, whether they campaigned for or against the referendum question.

Very soon after the referendum, all parties in the House of Assembly approved a new Term 17 to govern our school system. (The wording of which had been released to the public before the referendum vote for  everyone to see.) The new Term 17 does not make any reference to a secular system, but it does provide an interesting guarantee in the third clause which reads: “(3) Religious observances shall be permitted in a school where requested by parents.”

It would seem that while one secular parent can tear down a cross, a group of parents who still maintain their Christian faith (or another such group) can request religious observances which shall be permitted by the school — not will or may but shall. This could be a Christmas pageant or an Easter service or both.

In his commentary, Mr. Wangersky said that the lawyers for the Eastern School District felt they had to recommend tearing down the cross because the school would lose in a court challenge by the secular parent. Is that true? Is that what would really happen?  

If words mean anything, then the words in the referendum as well as those in clause three give the people of this province the right to have a robust religious presence in their schools — far more than is presently being allowed by our secular school system.

Of course, no one will know for sure until someone is prepared to challenge in court the demands being made by the secular — demands which may have a far more precarious legal footing than is usually assumed.   


Llew Hounsell writes from Corner Brook.

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Corner Brook

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Recent comments

  • Colin Burke
    June 21, 2013 - 09:10

    Mr. Power, unless "scientific" testing of every witness's vision, hearing and capacity for hallucination has become so routine that our news media no longer bother to report it in their court coverage, it would appear that courts' treatment of eyewitness evidence pretty much remains what it was while I reported on the courts for a newspaper for more than twenty years. As it is, you missed an opportunity to point out that my own observation about the judge's relying too much on a psychiatrist's opinion was itself only the evidence of an eyewitness unsupported by scientific testing -- a bit selective in pooh-poohing evidence, are we? For instance, the evidence that the U.S. Civil War was fought to protect the economic interests of the North rather than to eliminate slavery is somewhat more extensive than the evidence for "Adam and Eve romping with dinosaurs," but you lump these two things in together as if they were equally ridiculous and as if the current belief in the sanctity of the North could not possibly have come about because certain scholars control the past through having control of the present. -- a bit selective even in applying our own theories, are we?

  • Ed Power
    June 19, 2013 - 19:31

    You can counter the evidence of a scientist that you believe to be false, Mr. Burke, by having it tested and retested as you like. If the results of the independent tests are the same, then I'm afraid that you will be posting your next comments from the computer in the prison library. If, however, new independent tests - or new technology or testing processes - prove the original results to be false, you'll be commenting from the comfort of your own den. That is the difference between scientific results and the perception of an eyewitnesses unaided senses.

  • Colin Burke
    June 15, 2013 - 11:23

    Mr. Power, scientific methods may be more accurate than those of courts when properly applied, but the honesty and integrity of the scientists who apply them is no more guaranteed than the honesty of any witness who claims to have perceived with his own unaided senses what the scientists claimed to have found similarly but with the aid also of far more complicated instruments. I could at least contradict a persons who falsely said I was in a certain place at a certain time, but how do I, if falsely accused, contradict a scientist who claimed falsely to have seen that my DNA was found there? Especially if a judge trusts the science he doesn't know rather than the commonsense realities with which he ought to be familiar? I've even seen a judge rely almost entirely on the word of a psychiatrist concerning an accused's sanity, when an expert witness ought only to present evidence, not render judgement, which is the court's duty. I thought the posiition of most materialists was that the sciences depended on sense perception instead of the senses depending on scientific theories which change almost every decade if not more often.

  • Ed Power
    June 14, 2013 - 23:14

    "If when religious beliefs really conflict with reality, the reality cannot prevail, it would not appear to be a very strong reality". Mr. Burke, you do seem to understand the problem, although you approach it from the wrong direction. I refer you to George Orwell, who understood this problem, and expressed it as clearly as anyone possibly could - he being a master wordsmith and thinker - in his dystopian novel, 1984, "He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past." Your fundalmentalist co-religionists in the USA have grasped this truth, and started their counter-offensive against reality some years ago, which is why they targeted school board elections, and elections to the government agencies which oversee the curriculum standards and approve the material which will appear in school books published the USA. This is why, in recent years, the Texas State Board of Education has approved textbooks which promote Creationism - AKA Intelligent Design - and which refers to the US Civil War "The War of Northern Aggression". In this"alternate realitiy", slavery was good; the Voters Rights Act (1965) was bad, the Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King were even worse; Ronald Reagan was the greatest President in US history, and Adam and Eve romped around the Garden of Eden with their pet dinosaurs. As to your claims regarding the integrity and accuracy of eyewitness testimony in support of miracles, and their reliability in court proceedings, I suggest that you might wish to use an entirely different argument to bolster your case. While eyewitness testimony was, at one time, considered to be the most reliable testimony available, especially when sworn upon a Bible, the opinion of the legal system has evolved - sorry, I know how much that word bothers you - based upon years/decades of scientific research in fields such as psychology, sociology and anthropology which proved how and why people can misinterpret what they see or fail to see, and why factors such as cultural background, social status, income bracket, academic levels, employment status, racial prejudices and a host of other factors affect human perception. Today, Crown prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges evaluate eyewitness testimony far differently than was done a few years ago. Many convicted criminals, convicted upon sworn eyewitness testimony, have been freed years and decades after the fact when DNA or other scientific methods have proven the eyewitness testimony - testimony that was sincerely held to be true by the eyewitness - to be wrong. In one famous case a black man who wasn't even in the same state at the time a rape occured, was convicted of the crime based upon the sworn eyewitness testimony of the victim. Years later, when DNA evidence cleared the man she identified as her assailant, and the rapist whose DNA was found at a number of crime scenes was convicted of her rape, she was horrified to realize that she had sent an innocent man to prison. On a positive note, both her family and the family of the man she had mistakenly identified, eventually became close friends. We know today that all the women convicted by eyewitness testimony as witches, were innocent, convicted because of hysteria and relligious provacation. Based upon the past history of eyewitness testimony, you might want to rethink using it as argument in support of miracles. Cheers.

  • Colin Burke
    June 14, 2013 - 15:03

    Thank you, Too Funny, for pointing out my lapse in logic. I suppose congratulating you on being able to catch me out in one would expose my vanity to ridicule too painful for me to bear? One reason atheism is not taught in schools, of course, is that teaching requires some sort of rational basis for the lessons taught, and the basis of atheism seems often to be blaming God for doing things, or letting things happen, to people who don't themselves blame God for doing these things, or letting them happen, to them, while he seems to be letting many atheists themselves off rather lightly. Maybe he's saving up the sufferings which atheists deserve for being so irrational, to be presented as a surprise when they die. I myself will pray that your own surprise will be a pleasant one: God, besides being infinite mercy, has a sense of humour; that's one reason he allows atheism.

  • Pity the old man
    June 14, 2013 - 12:06

    You have my sympathies. I pity anyone that is so insecure that they must constantly return to the same page.

  • Colin Burke
    June 14, 2013 - 08:57

    If when religious beliefs really conflict with reality, the reality cannot prevail, it would not appear to be a very strong reality. I used to think that belief in the power of reality to prevail was the basis of free speech in public debate. But now it seems that people have to be indoctrinated, like Mr. Power, against allowing religious belief to keep it from overcoming their poor insubstantial reality, which it seems "science" can change anyway at whim. As has been said before, Christians believe in miracles because there is evidence for these, at least in the form of witnesses as reliable as those most courts of law believe every day, but a materialist doesn't accept that evidence because it contradicts his doctrine.

    • An athiest
      June 14, 2013 - 09:28

      ...and that's why religion has no place in school.

    • jmsmith
      June 14, 2013 - 10:51

      Yeah. Canada, as it is not a theocracy, is for him as much as it is for you.

  • Ed Power
    June 13, 2013 - 23:17

    If you want your children to receive religious indoctrination Colin, do it at home. If you want taxpayers to educate your children, send them to a public school. We don't need children being taught religious mythology in lieu of truth. Perhaps we need a system where parents who wish their children to be "educated' in this fashion can opt to have the portion of their taxes which is directed to public education redirected to a private religious school. The only flaw with this idea is that you can't have an education system based on religion, because sooner or later religious beliefs will clash with the reality. Some preacher, priest or imam will decide that Biblical Creation is true, Gallileo and Copernicus were wrong, or that Mohammad really flew to Jerusalem in one night on a magic horse. After that, well they just might start teaching that women are second class citizens, women should be subservient to men, women can't get pregnant from rape "because the body has a way of shutting that whole thing down" and that keeping slaves is just peachy. An education like this might not make for high academic scores, but it would certainly take the boredom out of correcting the exam papers.

  • Harold Stapleton
    June 13, 2013 - 21:54

    Congratulations to Mr. Hounsell for reminding us and for reminding the Eastern School Board that Newfoundland does not have a secular school system such as exists in the USA and in parts of the systems of several provinces. We have a "multi-denominational" system not a "non-denominational" system unless and until laws are changed in Newfoundland.

  • Colin Burke
    June 13, 2013 - 19:35

    Just Sayin, what I oppose about the nondenominational system is that it implies not only that what various Christian groups teach about religion can be taught adequately at home and in church but that these beliefs aren't important enough to be taught in school and that what kids learn in school is what really matters. That's the killer. Of course, no one comes right out and says openly that religion doesn't matter but I've read that it's not what teachers teach explicitly that really takes hold in children's hearts but the silent assumptions on which they base what they teach.

  • Ron Tizzard
    June 13, 2013 - 17:41

    Personally, I respect and support individuals and families from other countries and cultures who choose to come to my/our country to live. A mix of cultures can only enrich each other's cultures and religious beliefs. There are extremists, and personally insecure individuals in every culture, who seem to see the world, as diverse as it is on many levels, through the reduction end of a telescope;. That 'reduced world' is quite restricted; these people see these other cultures of the world, outside their own belief systems through the restrictive, diminishing lens with some degree of unfounded fear and trepidation. There can be severe levels of insecurity,fear and trepidation. These fears and insecurities are much more magnified in those people who would have been forced to move from the securities of their own traditions, homes and homelands. Cognative distortions are related through time, accounting for a disproportinate negative take of reality...creating an air of anxiety, suspicion and inadaquacy,,,,upon early introduction into a new environment. In this instance, there was a disproportionate intolerence from get go, seeing a symbol to which she cognitively/emotionally could not accept/handle....the opposing belief systems caused 'normal' stress. No harm done, or will be done upon enlightenment, discussion and TIME. Best wishes to this lady and her cvhild/family. Welcome to Newfoundland and Labrador.

  • Doug Smith
    June 13, 2013 - 15:59

    Cathy Browne, you are right that a cross on the outside of a building doesn’t mean it is an indoctrination centre necessarily, but it is promoting Christianity. Another point Cathy, when you say Newfoundland was founded on Christian beliefs are you including the genocide of the Beothucks by Newfoundland Christians? Are you including the horrific goings on at Mount Chashel by too many adult Christians there. Did you mean to also include the evil perpetrated by too many Catholic priests? Cathy I would say the history of Christianity in Newfoundland is nothing to be proud of but its disappearance from the schools is something to be proud of. Doug Smith, Grand Falls-Windsor

    • Cathy
      June 14, 2013 - 11:16

      Get in line, those who committed no sin can cast the first stone. It is horrible what went on at Mt. Chashel no doubt no way do I think that was right. It was a person (persons) who committed that shameful act not the Christian beliefs these men are not Christian. A true Christian would not do that therefore I am talking about Christians who actually help people, how come no one talks of the good that was done for exmaple St. Clares would you go to St. Clares if needed? John Cabot, Christoper Columbus the Viking all to blame do you think all of these men were Christian? With millions of Christians in the world the law of averages show there will be some bad people included. It is not just Catholics harming our young every church, organization has its bad apples. Boy Scouts etc and the list goes on. It does not make it right but that is what is happening.

  • Just sayin
    June 13, 2013 - 15:32

    More than a century ago my wife's great grandfather brought the Orange Lodge to their Conception bay community. He was the Master, and naturally involved with the Anglican Church there. He was also a carpenter. he made the cross that was put on the church tower. Then he fell out with his lodge brothers, for he had committed adultery with another woman. The lodge voted to expel him. This angered him, after all he had founded and built up the lodge there. His revenge was that he climbed the tower and with an axe cut his cross off the church. Moral.... all crosses are not sacred.

  • Abdul Saieed
    June 13, 2013 - 15:30

    "That is your opinion that Christianity is a fairy tale,ghost stories and superstitions. Newfoundland and Canada were founded on those beliefs." You said it. It was also founded on feudalism and colonialism, and the subjugation of its native inhabitants. How do you feel about those? " People died for those beliefs and you making little of those beliefs is insulting and closed minded of you." Who died for Christianity exactly? When Where?

    • Cathy
      June 14, 2013 - 11:24

      Well now, stop belittling my beliefs. Who died for Christiantity exactly, well let me tell you how about the massacre happened in Otranto, Italy in 1480 when Ottoman soldiers invaded and killed some 800 people on a hill after their refusal of converting to Islam. Am thinking you are going to say this did not happen, yes everyone is wrong but you:(

  • Just Sayin
    June 13, 2013 - 15:04

    Cathy, I would say that 80 percent are christian with a small c, as not following the true teachings of Christ. A Christain would say our beleifs are solid enough to be taught in church and at home, and we need not offend others with religious symbols in a school environment. If you or I were to move to a Muslin country, wouldn't it be nice that our children could attend school there without Muslin symbols? DO UNTO OTHERS..........now that's a Christain thought.

    • Cathy
      June 13, 2013 - 20:01

      Just Sayin, do you really think a cross is offensive? I would not be offend with a cresent moon on St. Matthews if a parent asked. How about acceptance and tolerance for all. As I said before if a cross has no meaning to you than why would it bother you. By the way do you think as a women I could go to a Muslim, Muslim with a m not n, country and not be covered or walk behind my husband would be tolerated I think not when in Rome.

  • t
    June 13, 2013 - 13:42

    WELL SAID!! I was very disappointed to hear the school board decided to remove the cross from St. Matthews to cater to one squeaky-wheel parent. I voted to end the denominational system because I went through the catholic school system, and thought it was a little heavy-handed with the religion aspect. With everything that's been happening in the school system since, especially in recent years, I've come to regret this decision. When the churches were in charge of education, there was never any threat of schools closing, against the better interest of students, and the focus was on student welfare and education, as it still should be, but sadly isn't. Our current school board is a disappointment in many ways.

  • Jeff
    June 13, 2013 - 11:57

    I agree. Let's ban critical thinking and reason from the schools. Oh, and science.

  • Colin Burke
    June 13, 2013 - 10:05

    Those of you who don't want your schools to teach any religion can teach your own children your atheism at home or pay extra for private schools, as Christians whose religon is vital to them now are obliged to do if they want their children properly instructed in the way of life which justified bringing those children into existence. Sauce for the goose... As things are now, "your" schools are no more yours than they are ours, which isn't much; they are the government's schools, teaching what politicians and bureaucrats want citizens to learn, which also isn't enough.

    • too funny
      June 14, 2013 - 07:55

      "...can teach your own children your atheism at home or pay extra for private schools...". That's strange logic, to assume that a person must be an atheist if they don't want their tax dollars used to promote one religion over another. Yes sir, a real Bushism - Amurrika, love it of leave it. Even funnier, is that "atheism" is not taught in schools. It's not taught anywhere, it naturally occurs as you become more intelligent.

  • hummer
    June 13, 2013 - 08:22

    I don't think a cross on the front of a school would be considered a religious observance.

  • Abdul Saieed
    June 13, 2013 - 07:07

    So you're saying that the choice was either a school system based on Christian fairy tales administered by the church, or a school system based on Christian ghost stories adminsitered by the province. What about those of us who don't want our schools to be indoctrination centres for any religion? If you demand to hobble your child's with superstitions, there are plenty of religius shrines out there.

    • Cathy Browne
      June 13, 2013 - 14:34

      That is your opinion that Christianity is a fairy tale,ghost stories and superstitions. Newfoundland and Canada were founded on those beliefs. People died for those beliefs and you making little of those beliefs is insulting and closed minded of you. What about the majority of people who do believe in Christiantiy? They don't count because of how you feel?. I do not believe that a Cross on the outside of a building is indoctrination centres for religion. It is a symblom how you choose to view it is up to you. If it means nothing to you it means nothing to you. If you take such issue with this perhaps moving to place where about 80% don't believe in God should be considered. You do realize that about 80% of people here are Christian?