Upholding freedom of religious education

A recent court decision should be welcomed by all parents, particularly in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario

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David Hunt CardusIt seems rare to find good news amidst the challenges of physical-distancing and self-quarantining, but a recent Saskatchewan Court of Appeal ruling gives much to celebrate for educational pluralism and religious freedom.

The unanimous decision in Saskatchewan versus Good Spirit School Division No. 204, given March 25, centred on education funding and, specifically, the question: Should taxpayers fund non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools?

This question has sweeping ramifications. In the words of the 2017 ruling’s trial judge, this is “one of the most significant lawsuits in the province’s history,” with implications for every student in Saskatchewan.

In the rural Saskatchewan village of Theodore, as students were dismissed for summer break in 2003, they said goodbye to their school. Permanently.

Their school board, Good Spirit School Division (GSSD) – which oversees a district spanning 14,000 square km – decided to close the only school in town. For budgetary reasons due to declining enrolment, the plan was to bus students to the neighbouring town’s school moving forward.

But in a display of civil society at its best, parents rallied to form a new school division, purchase the shuttered building, and reopen their community’s school – all in time for classes to start in September.

GSSD took issue with this since operating funds from the province are based on enrolment and, thus, follow the student. Since the reason for the school closure was budgetary constraints, potentially losing these students altogether compounded the issue.

Another matter was at stake. The community’s sole school reopened as Saint Theodore, a Catholic separate school. It threatened not only GSSD’s financial monopoly but its secular sectarianism.

So GSSD sued. 

It argued against the legitimacy of St. Theodore’s as a Catholic separate school, constitutionally entitled to full funding in Saskatchewan (as in Alberta and Ontario).

GSSD’s second contention was that non-Catholics shouldn’t receive taxpayer funding to attend a Catholic school. In the process, GSSD presented constitutional and religious freedom arguments along the lines of: Funding a non-religious student’s religious education violates state neutrality and, therefore, is a violation of freedom of religion.

The Court of Appeal rejected this constitutionally inconsistent line of reasoning.

In fact, the court called out GSSD for discriminating against students based on their religion – or non-religion. How can the state determine who is and isn’t Catholic? Assuming that can be answered, is it appropriate for the state to do so?

The decision explicitly avoids creating such a scheme.

Furthermore, the decision notes the inappropriateness of GSSD making a religious freedom argument – on others’ unsolicited behalf – to discriminate based on religion to thwart religious education.

Thankfully, the court justices cut through all the noise and said GSSD’s case was made “almost entirely” for financial reasons.

Although economic considerations are important, such considerations need to be weighed thoughtfully against non-economic trade-offs. In kindergarten to Grade 12 education, considering only market factors is failing to fully consider what’s at stake and what’s in the public interest.

Students aren’t commodities nor nameless consumers. They’re their parents’ children. They’re also community members. And the school experience is a complex ecosystem of living people.

All kindergarten to Grade 12 education is public education, since it’s in the public interest and for the common good. This is something Cardus research has long shown.

Such an argument has even more weight in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario, where separate schools are fully taxpayer funded and constitutionally protected.

To quote the Court of Appeal’s decision, separate schools are a “parallel public system of education.” By law, “any [Saskatchewan] child resident in any school division [may] attend any publicly funded school within that division,” wrote the justices.

Non-Catholic parents can choose a Catholic separate school for their children and Catholic parents can choose a non-Catholic government-run school. Both are fully public so both are open to all Saskatchewan school-age children.

Recognition of that reality is perhaps why funding for religious schooling is an increasingly non-partisan issue. Both the ruling Saskatchewan Party and the opposition NDP strongly support the decision.

Similar bipartisan support for religious schools is evident in British Columbia.

In an age of polarization and disruption, such solidarity for religious education is a welcome refuge of common ground – for Canadians of all political stripes.

David Hunt is education program director at the think-tank Cardus.

Davide is a Troy Media contributor. Why aren’t you?

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David Hunt

David holds a Master of Public Policy from Simon Fraser University and a Bachelor of Business Administration (with distinction) from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, where he was the Dean's Medal recipient. He has contributed to research in various policy areas covering education, labour markets, investment, entrepreneurship, and fiscal policy.

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