Ban on Gideon Bible handout at public schools sparks torrent of hate mail

TORONTO - An Ontario public school board's decision to ban distribution of Gideon Bibles to its young students has unleashed a torrent of threatening calls and hateful emails directed at trustees.

Some messages to the Bluewater District School Board express racist sentiment and question trustees' patriotism.

"When are you 'politically correct' idiots, with your heads buried in the sand, going to realize that every action you take to destroy Canadian heritage...?" one email began.

"Allowing newcomers to Canada the ability to walk all over our heritage has got to stop before they carry us into the realm of a warring nation like the one they often left behind," another writer said.

The invective has unnerved some trustees as they prepare to formalize the ban on distribution of all non-instructional religious materials prompted by a parent's complaint about the decades-old tradition of offering free Gideon Bibles to Grade 5 students.

Trustee Fran Morgan called the "onslaught" of messages "really disturbing," and said it has made her uneasy about driving the 30 kilometres to board meetings at night by herself.

"I really do feel threatened by it," Morgan said from Griersville, Ont. "It's been very unpleasant."

The Bluewater board, with more than 18,000 students in 53 schools across a broad swath of southern Ontario territory, is expected to formalize the ban at its meeting April 17, following in the footsteps of several other boards across Canada.

Ban proponents argue distribution of the Bibles has no place in a secular school system, and that it potentially violates human-rights legislation.

The board nixed the idea of allowing any religion to hand out materials on the basis it would suck up scarce resources and could be legally risky.

One writer blamed the decision on "a handful of non-Christian elected officials."

Board chairwoman, Jan Johnstone, admits the vitriolic responses — some urging trustees to "watch your back" — are unnerving.

"People do crazy things," Johnstone said. "They see Christianity as a fundamental part of their Canadian identity."

Another wrote one trustee: "How is that you agree with God's 10 Commandments and yet you have broken them countless times, you hypocrite!"

The Gideons, an evangelical Protestant association, started in the United States in 1899. The Gideons International in Canada was founded in 1911 and today is an autonomous national association.

Gideons International has been placing its Bibles _ comprising a New Testament plus the books of Psalms and Proverbs from the Old Testament _ in Canadian public schools since 1936.

Kelvin Warkentin, a spokesman for the Gideons International in Canada, acknowledged times have changed.

"Over time, due to the religious fabric of our country being re-woven, school boards have begun to re-evaluate their policies on this tradition," Warkentin said.

"The Gideons' response to the school boards' decisions to discontinue the distributions has always been complete acceptance."

Although one trustee received a phone call he thought was tantamount to a death threat, the board has so far not referred the matter to police, but a spokesman said the situation was being monitored.

Trustee Kevin Larson, who would have preferred all religions be allowed to distribute materials, said he was "disappointed" by some of what he's seen.

However, those views are in the minority, and two leaders in the religious community have apologized for the hateful expressions, Larson said.

Trustees emphasized that most of those in favour of continuing the distribution practice have been respectful in their views.

Note to readers: This story clarifies an earlier version. It specifies the Gideons International in Canada is an autonomous association.