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Holy books: If the holy book of one religion is allowed to be distributed in public schools, should they all be allowed? This is the question the region’s public school board will have to decide as a local group has requested permission to distribute the Qur’an.

Group requests permission to distribute Qur’an in public schools

WATERLOO REGION  (Source)— A Muslim organization has applied to the Waterloo Region District School Board to send a copy of the Qur’an home with any Grade 5 student whose parents indicate they would like one.

A representative of the Islamic Information Center at the University of Waterloo approached the former chair of the board, Kitchener trustee Mike Ramsay, with the request about a month ago.

Ramsay said he made sure that the group got all the information it required to make the written application.

“That particular request will come before the Board in the fall of 2011 for approval of distribution of the Qur’an in the 2011-12 school year,” said the board’s education director, Linda Fabi, in an email.

Fabi couldn’t be reached for comment Friday, and neither could the Muslim representative who spoke to Ramsay.

If trustees approve, the Islamic Information Center would be using the exact same distribution process as Gideons International has for the past 64 years in Waterloo Region.

Every year, the Gideons have sent a copy of the Christian New Testament, plus the Hebrew Bible books of Psalms and Proverbs, home to families of Grade 5 students who sign a permission form for the household to receive one.

The school board doesn’t use the books for classroom instruction. It only acts as a channel through which the books are sent home.

The board distributes the permission forms and the books. The forms have to be produced by the Gideons and the distribution must happen before or after school hours.

And also, the material — described as “non-instructional religious material” — is supposed to be reviewed ahead of time to be sure it doesn’t try to convert people to another religion, and to be sure it doesn’t denigrate any groups protected by human rights legislation.

But increasingly, this practice has become deeply controversial.

Some trustees, members of the public, religious leaders and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have criticized it as an improper role for public schools in a diverse society. They also say the board didn’t follow its own policy in some areas.

After contentious debate, trustees recently voted 6-4 to continue allowing the distribution of the Gideon book.

The permission slips are expected to be sent home from school on Monday.

With distribution of the Koran also now possible, “the debate will be very interesting,” said Ramsay, who had voted for the distribution of the Gideon books.

Some opponents of the practice had argued that the policy was unfair because not all religious groups can afford to give away so many books. The Gideons are a global group that has given away millions of Bibles.

But this latest application shows that “other groups appear to have the resources to make the distribution happen,” Ramsay said.

He said he would do what he could to make distribution of the Qur’an happen this school year, if possible.

Ramsay said he isn’t familiar with the Qur’an, but intends to review it.

“I hope it’s in English,” he said.

Board chair Kathleen Woodcock said this is the first time that she has heard of that a group other than the Gideons that has asked to distribute religious materials to students’ homes.

“Somebody’s going to have to review” the Qur’an to make sure it doesn’t proselytize, or denigrate groups protected by human rights law, she said.

Staff have always stated that trustees will be the ones reviewing the material, but the board policy doesn’t actually say who will do the review.

This is a point that will need to be clarified, she said.

Meanwhile, pressure continues to mount on trustees to halt the distribution of Gideon New Testaments, despite their recent decision to go ahead.

Monday afternoon, Woodcock will be presented with a petition with 242 signatures asking that distribution be halted.

“What we’re hoping to do is at least get someone to say, “Maybe we should hold off until we can bring this back to the board,” said Scott Colwell, one of the people who started the petition.

He knows that he is facing an uphill struggle. To halt the distribution, a two-thirds vote would be required. And also, the motion to reconsider must be made by a trustee who has changed his or her mind.

Trustees won’t meet to have that vote until mid-January, by which time the Gideon giveaway will be well underway.

Colwell has also written to board education director Fabi, asking that she “intervene and halt this process so that it may receive proper debate and review.”

He says that there are possible legal problems with the decision to distribute the New Testaments.

And trustees didn’t review the Gideon New Testament before voting.

Ramsay said he didn’t review the Gideon materials before voting last fall.

“I’m quite familiar with the contents of the New Testament.”