Montessori school’s letter discriminated against atheist parents: HRT

The decision has been the subject of international media scrutiny.

In a 90-page decision last week, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal ordered the Bowen Island Montessori School (BIMS) to pay a local family $12,000 after finding that the school had discriminated against them.

The case rested on a letter BIMS sent parents Gary Mangel and Mai Yasué in June 2015. The school asked the couple to sign it to say they understood and accepted the school’s curriculum and said until the couple signed, their child could not be registered for the fall term. No other family received such a letter.

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The decision has garnered widespread media coverage, from CBC to CNN to Fox News, perhaps due to the timely role of Christmas in the story (see related story).

(Yasué is of Japanese descent and Mangel is of Jewish descent.) 

 “I don’t think it’s appropriate to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, or any other religious/political event at preschool (including Remembrance Day),” wrote Mangel in an email to the board at the time. “Having the kids do these things seems inappropriate, given their absolute inability to understand the religious and political symbolism associated with those acts.”

Mangel said that his issue wasn’t with Christmas itself, but rather its role in a purportedly secular classroom. Mangel said that he’d been known to sing the odd Christmas song at home but that he didn’t believe that there should be such a religion-heavy focus to the curriculum. 

“I am not teaching religious beliefs but offer culturally diverse experiences through stories, games and songs,” the school’s teacher responded in an email. “I have to create a program that reflects the overall [beliefs] of the majority of families and the society we live in, in order to be inclusive and look at this as an opportunity to build bridges,” she wrote. The preschool would go on to argue that multiculturalism is a tenet of the Montessori method of teaching. 

Communication between the parents and the school grew increasingly tense. 

Tribunal member Barbara Korenkiewicz wrote in her in her decision, “Dr. Yasué testified that she felt that [the teacher]’s message was premised on the assumption that “normal” people celebrate Christmas and that there was something wrong with her family for not doing so – that they were the ones to blame.”

Mangel replied in an email to the board, “Being part of a racial/ethnic minority group who does not celebrate Christmas, Easter or other Christian/religious holidays, we have thought deeply about the symbolism of various celebrations and have critically assessed how we want to engage in these celebrations.

What to you may seem like a Canadian cultural norm is to us a religious symbol that we do not espouse.” 

One of Mangel’s emails, later in the increasingly tension-filled email exchange between the board and the parents, had included a list of atheist Christmas decoration suggestions, including one depicting the twin towers and a tagline, “Atheists don’t fly airplanes into buildings.” On another occasion, in conversation with one of the BIMS board members’ husbands on the ferry dock, Mangel, in what he called “a presposterous analogy between Nazi Germany and the singing of O Canada,” performed a Nazi salute. Mangel testified that the two men were joking around. The board member’s husband said that Mangel was not joking and that Mangel was “driving his point home.” 

BIMS representatives told the tribunal that at a subsequent in-person meeting, Mangel raised his voice, was waving his arms and forcefully pushed his chair back from the table. After the meeting, the preschool teacher said that she was feeling scared and like she was walking on eggshells. 

Both sides state that this issue was never brought up with Mangel. 

However, after the meeting, both parties said that they were hopeful that there’d been progress. 

“More than any specific type of Christmas ornament, or book, what is important is that there is room created for respectful dialogue and a willingness to hear different perspectives,” wrote Yasue in a follow up email to the meeting. “It seems important for BIMS to think of (with support from families) possible controversies in the religious / political surrounding various celebrations and aim for true neutrality.”

The issue of religious neutrality arose again in May, at a parent-teacher meeting, where Mangel noted that Valentine’s Day and Easter had been celebrated at the school with no consultation with the parents.

After this point, Korenkiewicz wrote in her ruling, the preschool teachers and board realized religion and the curriculum would be a continuing discussion and the school sought to minimize potential conflicts.

Tribunal documents show that at this point, both sides wished to have the child continue at the school. In one email Yasue called the teachers themselves, “amazing,” and a school board member said in another email (that wasn’t sent to the family) “[Yasue and Mangel] have some valid points.” 

However, then the school sent the June letter, which Korenkiewicz called “a misguided attempt to try and resolve competing interests in respect of a very difficult issue.”

That letter was the crux of the case, as the tribunal found: “This case is not about a challenge to BIMS curriculum or its approach to teaching about various cultural celebrations rooted in religious practices of diverse origin. At its core, it is about a letter which held Child A’s registration hostage to a demand,” wrote Korenkiewicz in her decision. 

“BIMS treated them differently from every other parent at the school, and sought to suppress their expression of concerns about the nature of the curriculum that were grounded in their race, ancestry and religious beliefs,” she said.

Each parent was awarded $5,000 for the repercussions sprouting from the June letter, the child $2,000 for having been denied enrollment. 

According to the court document, the child enrolled elsewhere.

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