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The Supreme Court of Canada threw primary-classroom doors open to education about same-sex parents yesterday, saying no age is too tender for children to learn the value of tolerance.

The court faulted a B.C. school board for succumbing to the ire of a group of religious parents who agitated in 1997 for the banning of three books depicting same-sex parents.

"Tolerance is always age-appropriate," a 7-2 majority said, handing a major victory to gay activists and a B.C. kindergarten teacher who dove headlong into a costly, five-year legal battle.

"Children cannot learn [tolerance]unless they are exposed to views that differ from those they are taught at home," Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin said.

James Chamberlain, the teacher whose attempts to educate his students about unconventional families precipitated the court battle, said that he is thrilled with the ruling.

"It will benefit every child in public school in Canada," Mr. Chamberlain said yesterday. "It also sends a message to school boards that they need to teach acceptance of same-sex families and have their educators teach kids about homophobia."

The dispute erupted after Mr. Chamberlain, a gay activist, sought approval to use the books in his kindergarten and Grade 1 classes. The board refused permission to use the books Asha's Mums, Belinda's Bouquet and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads.

The case evolved swiftly into a legal search for the point where parent and school-board authority gives way to a teacher's right to provide moral guidance.

The court majority said yesterday that in its stampede to mollify the angry parents, the school board did not consider the views of same-sex parents or the general benefits to be gained from the teaching of tolerance to young children.

The court ruled that British Columbia's School Act does not allow the board to translate religious doctrine into policy decisions that would deny opposing points of view.

Chief Justice McLachlin dismissed concerns that children would be confused or misled by classroom information about same-sex parents. She pointed out that the children of same-sex parents are rubbing shoulders with children from more traditional families.

The court instructed the Surrey board to reconsider the decision, a directive Surrey School Board chairwoman Mary Polak said yesterday the board will follow.

Joseph Arvay, a lawyer for Mr. Chamberlain, warned the board against trying to subvert the court. "If it were to not approve of the books, in my opinion it would be in contempt of the Supreme Court of Canada."

Anne Marie White, a spokeswoman for Focus on the Family, criticized the Supreme Court for leaving schoolchildren vulnerable to unwelcome discussions of complex sexual issues they cannot hope to comprehend.

In interviews throughout the day, people speaking for the gay community soft-pedalled any plans they have to extend same-sex education to schools across the country. The gay community is "seeking to have a diverse and inclusive curriculum," EGALE Canada spokesman John Fisher said.

In dissenting reasons yesterday, Mr. Justice Michel Bastarache and Mr. Justice Charles Gonthier took strong exception to the notion that religious parents have been relegated to the sidelines in the name of tolerance. "Tolerance ought not be employed as a cloak for the means of obliterating disagreement," they said. "The religiously informed conscience should not be placed at a public disadvantage or disqualification."

They said courts cannot be allowed to usurp the role of school boards elected by parents to represent their views.

But Chief Justice McLachlin tried to allay their concerns. "Religion is an integral aspect of people's lives and cannot be left at the boardroom door," she said.

"What secularism does rule out, however, is any attempt to use the religious views of one part of the community to exclude from consideration the values of other members of the community."

Mr. Chamberlain said yesterday that he has taught 300 students since the case began, and only one set of parents has denounced him.

He said the court case cost him and four other litigants $400,000, and that they are $175,000 in debt.

The school board is on record as having spent $880,000 on the case, Mr. Chamberlain said. Banned books Three books with innocuous-sounding titles lie at the centre of yesterday's Supreme Court ruling.

Asha's Mums, Belinda's Bouquet and One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads contain nothing remotely resembling sexual conduct, but feature simple story lines geared for children of kindergarten age.

In Asha's Mums, a little girl is required by her teachers to bring in a form signed by both parents allowing her to go on a class field trip. Much consternation ensues when Asha returns with two women's signatures on the form.

There is considerable debate with the child's class about her unconventional home life, and the book ends with a basic moral: What matters most in a home is not gender, but love and understanding.

The same-sex parents in Belinda's Bouquet are not central players in the plot line, but merely exist as parents in a matter-of-fact manner.

One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads uses the concept of dads who are different colours to explore how several pairs of dads came to be so different -- and whether it matters that they are.

Some excerpts from One Dad, Two Dads, Brown Dad, Blue Dads: "Blue dads? BLUE dads? I don't know who has dads who are blue!" "I do! My name is Lou. I have two dads who both are blue." "Of course blue dads work! And they play and they laugh. Did you think that they simply would stop being dads, just because they are blue?" "What funny ideas you have," replied Lou. Do you think dads are different, because they are blue?" "They were blue when I got them and blue they are still. And it's not from a juice, or a toy, or a pill." "They are blue because -- well -- because they are blue. And I think they're remarkable wonders -- don't you?"