Ontario court says students can shun religion
AT FIRST glance is seems a tad surprising that, in this increasingly secular world, those voting in a poll run by Canada’s Star.com have come down firmly in favour of public funding for Catholic schools in Ontario.
The reason they did so, it would appear, is that pupils attending Catholic schools in Ontario aren’t compelled do any Catholic stuff, like attend religious classes or liturgical services.
This came to light on Monday when the Ontario Superior Court ruled that students at a Catholic high school who are already entitled to be excused from religious courses must also be excused, if they wish, from religious field trips and attending mass.
The decision is being hailed by critics of publicly funded Catholic schools, who believe it brings a secular option to a religious school system they feel is a costly duplication of education.
Said Leonard Baak, President of Oneschoolsystem.org, which opposes taxpayer funding of Catholic schools.
Parents of Grade 9 to12 students living in a community where the nearest school, the least crowded school, or the best school is Catholic can now chose that school without fear that their children will be forced to take sectarian (religious) courses and programs of little interest to them.
Grade 11 student Jonathan Erazo is not Roman Catholic, but has attended Brampton’s Notre Dame Catholic School because his father, Oliver Erazo, felt it was the best school close to their home.
In Grade 10, Jonathan asked to be excused from religious classes, and after refusing at first, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board eventually agreed because Ontario’s Education Act excuses non-Catholic high school students from “any program or course of study in religious education” if their parent asks in writing.
But when Jonathan also wanted to be excused from having to attend five or six church services and a religious field trip each year, the school refused, arguing that all students are expected to take part in these for:
Supervision, safety and community reasons.
Oliver Erazo decided to ask the courts for clarification, and Ontario Superior Court Justice Ted Matlow agreed with Erazo.
No Catholic school system that is required by law to admit non-Catholic students should have the right to require participation in such activities as liturgies and retreats. In my view, the liturgies and retreats … have as their central purpose the provision of religious experiences and education to the students who attend them.
Commenting on the decision here, Star correspondent Thomas Walkom asked:
What’s the point of a religious school system if students can opt out of religion?
He pointed out that in 1984 a Conservative government pledge to fully fund Catholic schools led to its defeat a year later. In 2007, the Tories were defeated again in an election fought over the issue of religious school funding.
The compromise that emerged from all of this was a complicated one. The province did extend full funding to Catholic schools. But, in exchange, Catholic high schools had to admit non-Catholic students — and allow them to opt out of any religious instruction.
The judgment raises two interrelated questions.
First, why do parents who don’t want their children exposed to religion send their children to religious schools?
The answer, it seems, is that many Ontarians think Catholic schools are better than their public counterparts.
Some parents like the dress code that certain Catholics schools require. Some think they put more emphasis on discipline. Some think they provide a better education.
Ontario’s Catholic schools have already found it hard to navigate the tricky path between church orthodoxy and public acceptability, most recently over the issue of gay-straight student clubs.
Thanks to a 1997 court decision, they have managed to retain the right to discriminate in employment. Catholic schools need not hire non-Catholic teachers.
But if they can’t make their students experience even a little bit of Catholicism — if, in order to qualify for government support, they are simply public schools with a dress code — why bother?
Hat tip: BarrieJohn