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Thousands sign petitions to support Gideons

By Bill Henry, Sun Times, Owen Sound

More than 2,000 people have signed petitions urging Bluewater District School Board trustees to continue to allow the Gideons to give Bibles to Grade 5 students.

More than 100 people sat quietly to hear the board's policy committee agree that a subcommittee should draft a proposed, inclusive policy to govern distribution of religious materials of all faiths in board schools in Grey and Bruce counties.

Murray Gostick, who chairman of the board at Sauble Christian Fellowship, handed over the bulk of the petitions at the committee meeting.

He said he didn't expect a decision Tuesday, and while he was fine with where the policy appears to be heading, supporters just want the current practice maintained for Gideon Bibles and most would be just as happy to continue with no governing policy.

Gostick said 1,900 people in the Owen Sound area signed petitions supporting the Gideons, with another 800 from the Hanover area and as many as 600 from the Flesherton area.

"They don't want it thrown out. They want their children to have it," he said.

"We knew there was going to be no decisions made tonight. This was only to show our support to keep things going in the school system."

Currently, children in Grade 5 whose parents sign a permission form receive a small Gideon Bible, presented by a Gideons International representative outside instructional time.

Any new policy should address all faiths, some trustees said during the policy discussion. After the meeting, Bruce Peninsula trustee Terry Bell was more specific. He said current practice -- distribution of faith materials, outside class time, if parents agree -- should be made available to Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and all other faiths.

"That would be my goal, equal opportunity," said Bell, one of two trustees appointed to the sub-committee, which includes senior staff and Southgate/Grey Highlands trustee Jim Dawson.

"I don't think charter rights would then be in question because we're giving equal opportunity and we're not discriminating. I think we have to understand that Christianity is only one religion and that everybody else should have a voice in a public system."

Bell also said he plans to poll constituents as part of his role with the committee and include that input into the draft policy expected in February. He said he has had more calls and e-mails about this topic than on any other issue, mostly supporting the Gideons.

"But I want to make sure that down the road people who have a different thought or a different concern have an opportunity to be heard."

Normally, new policies go out to the systems and sometimes to interest groups in the community, over about three months before a final decision, trustees heard at the meeting.

Dawson agreed any policy would include all faiths "or none."

The policy committee, at the suggestion of chairman Kevin Larson, of Saugeen Shores and Arran-Elderslie, directed the sub-committee to draft two policies for further consideration. One would allow all faiths to distribute religious materials in schools, and set out the procedure. The other would not allow any such materials in schools.

The sub-committee would then report back to the policy committee with a recommendation to the board for either a brand new policy specific to religious materials, or recommend the procedure be included as part of an existing policy, which trustees heard is how most boards with such policies have handled it.

Trustees were to hear two delegations about distributing religious materials at Tuesday night's regular board meeting.

Under the board's rules of procedure, none of the more than 100 visitors at the policy meeting were asked to speak, nor were they allowed to ask questions of trustees.

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