In Saskatchewan, a recent ruling by a Court of Queen’s Bench justice was meant to end a 12-year legal battle between public and Catholic school administrations. But Premier Brad Wall’s announcement that the province will invoke the notwithstanding clause for the first time in more than 30 years may drag the controversy on longer.
Many legal experts believe Saskatchewan doesn’t have jurisdiction to use the clause – which allows a province to temporarily operate outside the Charter of Rights and Freedoms on specific issues – in this case. That could mean the case is heading to the Supreme Court of Canada.
In 2003, faced with the closure of their village’s elementary school due to low enrolment, parents in Theordore, Sask., organized to open a publicly-funded Catholic school. These parents were opposed to busing children to the next available public school.
The local public school district objected that not all the new Catholic school students were Catholic. The district took the matter to court, arguing that while the Constitution allows for Catholic children to receive publicly-funded Catholic education, it doesn’t extend the same right to non-Catholics who want their children to attend a Catholic school.
The court ruled in late April that the approximately 15 percent of the province’s Catholic school students who are non-Catholic are not entitled to public funding. The ruling could mean thousands of students are forced to switch from Catholic to public schools.
In the three provinces that offer a separate Catholic school system, it’s estimated that 15 to 30 percent of students enrolled aren’t Catholic.
So why do so many people who don’t adhere to the faith choose to educate their children in Catholic schools?
In 1991, the Ontario government ordered public schools to “de-Christianize.” This meant that after-school Bible clubs were prohibited, as was reciting the Lord’s Prayer at school assemblies.
The order didn’t apply to Ontario’s Catholic schools because the Constitution gave them minority rights to a publicly-funded Catholic education.
The implementation of the order has become challenging for public school administrations. As new Canadians demand religious rights for their children, completely secularizing public schools has become more difficult. Through challenges at human rights tribunals, other minority faiths have won the right to hold prayers during the school day, take time off for religious holidays and wear religious articles at school.
Yet even with these religious accommodations, some parents seek more.
Parents who raise their children to adhere to certain behaviours and values at home want those values reinforced in school. At the very least, they don’t want educators to undermine them.
There are few curriculum differences between public and Catholic schools. But for many parents, the key advantage to Catholic school is that teachers infuse students with Catholic values. These values, particularly when they overlap with Protestant, Muslim, Jewish or even humanist values, attract non-Catholic families by the thousands.
Despite what the courts ultimately determine, provincial governments shouldn’t dismiss the substantial number of parents who want values-infused education for their children. Last winter, news broadcasts showed lineups of non-Catholic parents camped out overnight to secure a place for their child at Toronto-area Catholic high schools. Such images are difficult to forget.
The Saskatchewan ruling gives provincial governments the impetus to explore the many alternatives to forcing children, against their parents’ will, into secular public education.
Provincial governments should promote school choice for parents who feel trapped by the Saskatchewan ruling. School choice can be implemented quickly and efficiently, and can take a variety of forms.
In Denmark, Sweden, New Zealand and elsewhere, school vouchers – public money – allow for parental choice in education. A parent seeking values-infused education can use a voucher to enrol their child in the separate Catholic school system or an independent school. The voucher system doesn’t impact the overall cost of education.
Charter schools are another cost-effective option. These schools are publicly funded but not administered by the traditional school board. Instead, a school council of parents and other stakeholders have the authority to infuse whatever values they agree on.
If the Ontario government insists on accommodating religious freedoms in schools, it must walk back the de-Christianization of the public school system. If Muslim students are permitted to pray on Fridays and Sikh students can carry a kirpan, why can’t a public school system allow a group of children to have an after-school Bible club?
Our public schools are perhaps the only place within the multicultural Canadian society where secularization is demanded. Almost every other publicly-funded institution makes allowances for people’s faiths. Chapels are available in courthouses and hospitals. The Lord’s Prayer and even the Crucifix can be found in government assemblies. Freedom of religious expression is protected under the Constitution.
If public school administrators find it so offensive that Catholic schools are educating non-Catholics, then rather than go to court at tremendous cost to taxpayers, why not seek to reform their schools to meet the educational needs of everyone?
Maddie Di Muccio is a former town councillor in Newmarket, Ont., and former columnist with the Toronto Sun.