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Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36

December 20, 2002

Supreme Court: School board ignored the interests of same-sex parented families when it refused to approve books depicting families with same-sex parents

The Supreme Court of Canada has held that a school board cannot rely on the religious objections of some parents to justify banning books depicting families with same-sex parents.

Background

An elementary school teacher asked the Surrey School Board to approve three books for use in teaching the family life education curriculum. The books depicted families with same-sex parents. The school board refused to approve the books. It was concerned that some parents would have religious objections to using books that showed same-sex relationships.

The British Columbia Supreme Court quashed the school board’s decision. It held that the members of the board who had rejected the books were significantly influenced by religious considerations. That offended the province’s School Act.

However, the British Columbia Court of Appeal granted the school board’s appeal. It said the decision was within the school board’s jurisdiction. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Supreme Court’s decision

A majority of the Supreme Court of Canada allowed the appeal. It determined that the school board had failed to consider the objects and purposes of the School Act and therefore had unreasonably exercised its powers. The Court noted that the School Act insisted on secularism and non-discrimination. While this did not mean that religious considerations could never play a part in the board’s determinations, it was required to act in a way that promoted respect and tolerance for all the diverse groups it represents and serves.

The Supreme Court also concluded that the board had violated the principles of the School Act because it did not proceed on the basis of respect for all types of families. Rather, it proceeded on an exclusionary philosophy, acting only on the concern of certain parents about the morality of same-sex relationships. It did not consider the interests of same-sex parented families, and the children in them, in receiving equal recognition and respect in the school system. The school board also failed to consider the curriculum’s goal that children in kindergarten and grade 1 should be able to discuss their family models. In addition, all children should be made aware of the diversity of family models in Canadian society.

The Court left it to the school board to reconsider whether the books should be approved as supplementary learning resources. However, the board was required to determine that issue in accordance with the criteria laid out in the curriculum guidelines and the broad principles of tolerance and non-sectarianism underlying the School Act.

Egale Canada and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario intervened in support of the appellants.

Read the Supreme Court’s decision.

Lawyers

Howard Goldblatt

Practice Areas

Administrative Law, Appeals & Judicial Review