Religion divides Winnipeg school board

Religion is again splitting the Winnipeg School Division board.

This time, the turmoil surrounds lunchtime Bible studies and preschool prayer organized by the Child Evangelism Fellowship of Manitoba.

Trustees have rejected a petition form used for years by the group to sign up parents who want their kids to get religious instruction in the secular public school system -- as the Public Schools Act allows.

A majority of trustees has found the petition form unacceptable -- they've rejected Bible studies at Greenway School, and told a board committee to work out an appropriate petition form.

Trustee Mike Babinsky was outraged Monday night. He accused trustees of setting up every roadblock possible to thwart religion in division schools. The board has always stretched out the approval process for months, he said, allowing only one of three readings of the necessary bylaw to be heard each month.

And now it won't take the petition at all, he said.

"Over the years, we have made it very difficult for these people in our community to believe in God. They have the right to do this," he said, accusing fellow trustees of finding ways "to oust these kind of people from our schools."

Trustee Kevin Freedman said Babinsky's accusations were shocking, and argued the problem had nothing to do with religion.

"It simply wasn't a valid petition," said trustee Sherri Rollins.

Trustee Lisa Naylor was ready to take on Babinsky about religion. She said the group -- the only one that uses the Public Schools Act to conduct religious instruction in division schools -- holds beliefs "that do not support gay and lesbian families, transgender people."

"How do we allow discussion to go on in our schools that goes against our own values?" Naylor said.

Trustee Cathy Collins warned the board it is in contempt of the Public Schools Act.

Board chairman Mark Wasyliw said the petitions go to staff, who check the signatures and then prepare a bylaw for first reading at each school annually. But, said Wasyliw, trustee Dean Koshelanyk took the time to inspect the petition and didn't like what he saw.

"They had a tear-off sheet. There's no mention of Winnipeg School Division," said Wasyliw. He said the division will work with the group to develop a template.

Officials said only two other schools received approval earlier in the year, the lowest number organized by the Child Evangelism Fellowship in years.

Religious turmoil has flared in the division in past years. The division has severely restricted access to the Gideons to distribute Bibles, and has made some churches and church camps off-limits for school activities because of those faiths' beliefs regarding sexual orientation.