When I first moved to Newfoundland in the summer of 1997, I refrained from my civic duty to vote. Within weeks of my arriving, the Province voted in a referendum concerning the nature of education, and the presence of religious schools within the province. It was the only time that I have not voted and upheld my rights as a citizen. I did not feel that I had the right to bring my voice to the province, because I had not long been a resident. There was much rhetoric concerning the rights of religious bodies and religious freedom in the referendum. By the end of the summer of 1997 the province of Newfoundland and Labrador had voted to abolish a publically funded religious school system. The question that was posed to voters was:
Do you support a single school system where all children, regardless of their religious affiliation, attend the same school where opportunities for religious education and observances are provided?
A part of the resolution that was adopted by the House of Assembly was the following:
17(3) Religious observances shall be permitted in a school where requested by parents.
The vote was clear and unmistakable; 73% supported the change and the adoption of the new terms.
During the following years, there were many adjustments to life in schools resulting from the referendum, some well received, and others were difficult for all involved. Since that time there has not been much controversy or challenge stemming from the 1997 referendum, until this past month.
Recently, a parent complained about the presence of a cross on the outside of a St. John’s school, St. Matthew’s Elementary, requesting it to be removed. The public has been advised that the school board will submit to this request over the summer, thereby avoiding a court battle that could possibly go to the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Instantly, the province became fixated on the debate. A local radio station held a poll, 28,000 persons responded, 16,000 in favour of the decision. Discussion, debate, anger and controversy have stemmed from the issue.
Overall, the faith communities have been silent on the matter. It seems as if there is little impetus for faith leaders to enter into the debate.
All of this has caused me to reflect. On first hearing the news I was concerned. If the public desires to remove from schools all connections with Christianity, then the removal of the cross will not solve the issue. Christianity is deeper than that. My second reaction was to call up a friend from the Religious Social Action Coalition of Newfoundland and Labrador, the president of the Jewish Community Havura, and suggest that we present a gift of all the major faith symbols to the school to permanently display at their main entrance. My comment to him was that we are about advocating religious diversity, not promoting spiritual sterility in society.
Now that some of this discussion has died down in the media once again, I find myself reflecting on the reason for symbols and emblems in my life. A cross does not make me a Christian. I do not wear a cross, nor do I have a cross tattooed on my body. My Christian life and witness are revealed in my actions within the world. All I do reflects my Christian identity, and my attempts to faithfully respond to God in Christ Jesus.
I don’t need a cross, a stole, a collar, or an icon to do this. The sign marked on my forehead by baptismal water has long since evaporated. The watermark that is left is within.
All the symbols can be torn from all the effigies, monuments and buildings in society. It will not make a difference to the presence of God in our midst, and our yearning to respond to God in Christ Jesus.