School board halts Christmas Child program
When Carolyn Jones, pictured outside of Harriet Todd Public School in Orillia, took the reins of the local Operation Christmas Child chapter six years ago. The local public school board has since instated a policy prohibiting its schools from participating after hearing complaints from parents the project has a religious affiliation. ROBERTA BELL - QMI AGENCY
Students at local public schools are no longer packing shoeboxes full of Christmas presents for children in developing countries because the project has a religious component to it.
Last fall, parents from different schools across the Simcoe County District School Board (SCDSB) voiced concerns about students participating in the long-running Operation Christmas Child initiative, which promotes the Christian faith, said SCDSB superintendent Steve Blake.
“We have to be inclusive, as a public system, of all religions and not promote one over another,” he said, adding, after looking into the issue further, the board instated a policy prohibiting its schools from partaking.
While the shoeboxes have the Operation Christmas Child logo on them, the children packing them are not subject to any additional religious material, said Carolyn Jones, chair of the local chapter of the organization.
“They’re just packing from their heart from one child to another,” she said.
When Jones took the reins of Operation Christmas Child in Orillia six years ago, about 10 elementary schools in the city from both the public and Catholic school boards were participating, packing anywhere between 50 and 300 boxes each.
This year, there are none.
It’s up to individual school boards to decide how to handle religion in their schools, said Andrew Morrison, spokesperson for the Ministry of Education.
Their legislation should be guided by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Ontario Human Rights Code and Education Act, he said, noting the ministry does not track the different school boards’ policies on religious materials.
“It’s really case by case, based on the school board,” he said.
Schools in the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board (SMCDSB) are still free to partake in Operation Christmas Child if they wish, SMCDSB communications manager Diane Legg said, noting many opt to support organizations with Catholic or Christian connections, though it’s not a stipulation.
A number of SMCDSB schools fundraise for the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Terry Fox Foundation, she continued, adding “it’s the spirit of giving that’s important.”
Packing boxes for Operation Christmas Child is a popular choice in schools throughout the Catholic school board — even if not in Orillia right now — because “it’s something that students can actually do themselves,” Legg said. “They know they can be making a difference.”
But the public school board’s issue isn’t with the assembling and sending of the shoeboxes, Blake said; it’s with what happens when they arrive at their destinations.
“Following the shoebox distribution, local churches and our ministry partners are equipped with a 12-lesson Bible-study course titled The Greatest Journey, which introduces children to Jesus, shows them how to receive him and follow him and equips them to share their faith with family and friends,” Blake said, reading from the Operation Christmas Child website.
A number of parents have told the school board they feel the Bible-study course is a form of indoctrination, Blake said, and overshadows the value of the boxes.
They’re also concerned it’s not clear an “intensive religious component” is involved, he said.
“What parents are telling us is that they’re getting involved in the program without realizing that there’s a strong religious component to the process and then are offended when they find out,” Blake said.
While materials about the Christian faith are always offered when the boxes are being distributed,” it’s always the child’s choice or the parent’s choice or the community’s choice” whether to accept them, Jones said, adding “no child is ever denied a shoebox for religious reasons.”
In the letter that goes out to the schools, it is clearly stated a religious component is included when the boxes are delivered, she said.
For the public school board, the issue with religious affiliations goes beyond Operation Christmas Child.
While concerns about Operation Christmas Child were brought to the forefront last year, since 2009, the SCDSB’s administrative procedures memorandum has stated “advertisements and promotional materials cannot promote a particular religion or set of beliefs,” Blake said.
“Collecting gifts and supplies for the needy here and abroad demonstrates great humanity,” he said, noting there are “many ways” students can “get involved in supporting the less fortunate locally overseas.”
Parents and their children are free to get involved with Operation Christmas Child, and organizations like it, on their own, he said.
“We can’t promote it in the schools.”