Christmas Comes Early for Atheist Family

They're awarded thousands of dollars by a court after they protested multicultural holiday celebrations at a preschool

Christmas arrived early for an atheist family in Canada when a British Columbia human rights tribunal awarded them $12,000 (about $9,000 in U.S. dollars) last week in a dispute centered on multicultural holiday celebrations in a Montessori preschool.

The dispute between Bowen Island Montessori School (BIMS) in metro Vancouver and the atheist parents of a young daughter referred to as “Child A” began just before the fall 2014 holiday season, as Fox News and other outlets noted.

Gary Mangel, the child’s father and a volunteer member of the school’s board, objected to the school’s plans to include activities that celebrated a variety of religious and cultural traditions, including Christmas, Hanukkah, and Kwanza.

Ultimately, the complaint and ensuing decision came down to a letter and associated correspondence the school sent to Mangel and Mai Yasué (Child A’s mother), requiring them to “sign a document stating that they understood and accepted all aspects of BIMS’ cultural program” prior to re-enrolling their child.

The parents alleged that the letter discriminated against them and was in violation of the human rights code.

In issuing her decision on the matter in favor of the parents, tribunal member Barbara Korenkiewicz noted specifically that “the discrimination complaint is not about whether BIMS’ curriculum itself is discriminatory.”

Rather, Korenkiewicz found that “Dr. Yasué and Mr. Mangel both experienced negative effects as a result of BIMS’ refusal to confirm Child A’s registration for the 2015‐2016 school year unless they signed the June 8, 2015 letter.”

“In this regard, 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 added.

The $12,000 remedy was an award for “damages to dignity” that included $5,000 for each parent and $2,000 for Child A.

The daughter, who attended BIMS for one year, later enrolled in another preschool, “where she did remarkably well and thrived,” according to Korenkiewicz — and “suffered no ill effects.”

The decision cited emails, school board meetings, and personal interactions among the parties.

Mangel, who is of Jewish ancestry, expressed concern about a number of holiday-related materials and activities available to the children, including a dreidel, felt poppies for Remembrance Day, clay elf ornaments, a Santa, and the birth of Christ.

In an email to BIMS families, the school explained there is an “offering of information but no insistence of belief” in their curriculum, and that they intended to explore “celebrations such as Kwanzaa, Hanukah, Winter Solstice and, of course, Christmas” with their young students.

They added that the cultural curriculum “helps the children understand about differences and encourages acceptance and inclusiveness in our classroom” and that “information sharing is a key component of Montessori philosophy and the prime goal is to offer cultural experiences, encourage wonder and celebrate and honor diversity.”

Mangel and Yasué opposed the inclusion of religious and political events within the curriculum.

To cement his point, according to the testimony cited in Korenkiewicz’s decision, Mangel emailed alternative “atheist Christmas ornaments,” one of which depicted the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers with the caption, “Atheists don’t fly airplanes into buildings.”

During a board meeting in late November in 2014, according to a teacher’s testimony, Mangel reportedly became “very agitated” when he heard a description of children playing with a dreidel while they learned about Hanukkah.

The teacher testified that Mangel “forcefully slammed his hand on the table as he raised his voice,” adding that the behavior made her feel “unsafe” to the point that she began to shake.

Testimony from another person who was present indicated that Mangel said the dreidel “signifies the occupation of Palestine.”

The child’s father reportedly became “very agitated” when he heard a description of children playing with a dreidel while they learned about Hanukkah.

The decision also detailed other questionable behavior by Mangel — the child’s father — including “doing the Nazi salute and marching around while he sung a different version of ‘O Canada’ in which he substituted his own lyrics” and threatening to sue a public school where children sing the national anthem, which contains the word “God.”

Michele Blood is a Flemington, New Jersey-based freelance writer and regular contributor to LifeZette.