The Centre for Inquiry and the Canadian Secular Alliance is calling an Ontario school board's decision to remove a children's book from its library shelves, "an overt example of the discrimination against atheists by the religious."

The Halton Catholic District School Board ordered "The Golden Compass" to be removed from library shelves at dozens of schools after receiving a request for review from a member of the community.

The book, written by popular British author Philip Pullman, has won numerous awards including the Maine Student Book Award and the American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults award.

Justin Trottier, executive director of the Centre for Inquiry Ontario, is urging the books be returned to shelves "so that libraries may continue to be places of learning and imagination."

"Some of our greatest authors, philosophers and scientists have been atheists. If books written by atheists are banned for not conforming to Catholic worldviews, will the school board proceed to ban books deemed pro-Muslim, pro-Buddhist, or even pro-Protestant if they are critical of Catholicism?," Trottier asked in a statement on Thursday.

"Pretty soon the only book in their library may be the Bible."

The board -- which oversees some 43 elementary and secondary schools in Ontario -- has pulled the book from public display and two other Pullman titles from the "Dark Materials" trilogy. The books are available to students upon request.

Committee to review book

Scott Millard, manager of library services with the board, told on Friday that the review has been board policy since 1990 and that "any community member has the right to request a re-examination of learning or library material."

"We are an integral part of the community and people have the right to ask us about the resources we have," Millard said.

The Halton board has since set up a 12-member committee to review the book and recommend whether it should be available to students.

"It represents a wide variety of people, trustees, teachers, principals and consultants so that we have a wide variety of input," Millard said.

After reading the book, the committee will complete an evaluation form that examines a "wide variety of criteria" including grammar, plausibility, language, plot, etc.

"We're evaluating the book 'The Golden Compass' -- we're not evaluating the author, it's the book we're looking at," Millard said.

A memo issued by the board says the books are "apparently written by an atheist where the characters and text are anti-God, anti-Catholic and anti-religion," the Toronto Star reported.

After evaluations forms are received, the committee will submit recommendations to the board of trustees, who will then vote on whether the book is suitable for students.

More controversy

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic board in Ontario is also conducting an informal review into the content of the book. Staff members have been asked to read the book and report back on the plot, the newspaper said.

Similar concerns prompted a Catholic organization in the U.S. to urge parents to boycott a movie version of the book that is set for release next month.

Trottier compared the recent backlash to the campaign against Salman Rushdie's "The Satanic Verses."

The novel prompted Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa -- a religious edict -- against the author for insulting Islam that spurred death threats and inevitably forced Rushie into exile.

"While the campaign against 'The Golden Compass' is a mere microcosm of the 'Satanic Verses' affair, it is still an overt example of the discrimination against atheists by the religious," Trottier wrote.

Pullman, known for his "legendary atheism" in the British press, has never shied away from his controversial views on religion.

"The trouble is that all too often in human history, churches and priesthoods have set themselves up to rule people's lives in the name of some invisible god (and they're all invisible, because they don't exist) -- and done terrible damage," Pullman writes on his website.

"In the name of their god, they have burned, hanged, tortured, maimed, robbed, violated, and enslaved millions of their fellow creatures, and done so with the happy conviction that they were doing the will of God, and they would go to Heaven for it."