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Equal Funding for Faith Based Education—Part 2
The principle of public funding for faith-based schools is good, but certain details will have to be resolved before these schools can decide whether or not to opt in to the public system.


Comments and questions resulting from the August 8, 2007, weblog on the issue of Equal Funding for Faith-Based Education in Ontario have encouraged the writing of a second installment on this topic.

… public school policies have created an environment in the public school system that virtually prohibits any faith expression.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) has publicly endorsed the principle of providing public funding for faith-based expression in education for almost two decades. The EFC was an original participant in the Coalition for Religious Freedom in Education, which has matured into the Multi-Faith Coalition for Equal Funding of Religious Schools.

The funding of faith-based schools is a reasonable accommodation for the religious community which has lost its opportunity for expression in the existing "public" school system. This loss of presence is largely the result of court decisions eliminating mandatory religious exercises from the public school system (Zylberberg; Elgin County (1990), 71 OR (2d) 341, Ont CA) and decisions requiring accommodation of other identifiable individuals and groups under the Ontario Human Rights Code (the "Code"). The result of this combination has been that most public school boards eliminated mandatory and optional or extra-curricular opportunities for religious instruction and expression. At the same time those same school boards have engaged in a process of adopting policies and programs that accommodate instruction and expression for the other identifiable groups listed in Section 1 of the Code (race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, etc), but not religion—even though religion or "creed" has an equal standing to these other identifiable characteristics of individuals and groups.

I have placed "public" in quotation marks because some have confused the 1867 decision providing for Catholic schools as a division between Catholic and "public" schools. In 1867, the issue was whether Catholics would provide education for their own children or whether they would be merged into the existing Protestant school system. There was no public system as it would be described today. The determination wisely made was to accommodate the differences in faith understanding in two systems. The Protestant system provided education for children from a broad range of Christian expressions, eventually—based on Christian principles—also accommodating non-Christian children in what has become the "public" school system.

In response to the court decisions mentioned above, public school policies have created an environment in the public school system that virtually prohibits any faith expression. Given the decades it has taken to incorporate accommodation of the concerns of non-religious identifiable groups under the Code, parents of Catholic school children (30 percent of the children in the publicly funded education system in Ontario) and parents of children currently receiving other faith-based education (2.5 percent of Ontario's school age population) would be justifiably concerned about the potential mistreatment of children with religious beliefs if a "one school" system was to be implemented.

Some parents of children in the public school system in Ontario have said that their children encounter discrimination based on their creed (religious belief). Thus, it may be a legitimate consideration that public funding of faith-based schools could lead to a re-balancing of attendance figures in the public system as those parents not currently able to afford placing their children in faith-based schools may do so. This has been the experience in British Columbia. A benefit of this rebalancing in B.C. has been the reduction, not elimination, of overcrowded classrooms in the public system.

A second option would be engrafting faith-based schools into either the public or Catholic school systems.

The principle of public funding for faith-based schools in Ontario, other than as constitutionally mandated for Catholic schools, is legally permissible under the Canadian constitution as stated in the 1987 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Reference re Bill 30.

One option for providing public funding would be the provision of vouchers or some other form of funding arrangement for faith-based schools without requiring integration into the public school system. This would likely satisfy the requirements of the United Nations in regard to the UN Human Rights Committee's decision in Waldman.

A second option would be engrafting faith-based schools into either the public or Catholic school systems. While the Catholic system is an existing and functioning faith-based system, it is the public system that may have greater legal requirement to accommodate under the Code and is constitutionally accessible for adaptation by decision of the Government of Ontario.

The benefits of bringing interaction between the currently non-funded faith-based schools and other schools in the existing publicly funded system becomes self-evident by considering the interaction between existing public schools. Essentially, students who are currently isolated from involvement and interaction with other students in the public system would become integrated into it. Additionally, there would likely be supervision requirements to ensure curriculum and staffing standards are being maintained. This should address the concerns of those who voice opposition to the potential funding of isolationist and extremist education.

The logistics of enfolding faith-based schools into the public system are another story. If public funding is extended:

• Will faith-based schools retain the right to select faith sharing staff?
• Will faith-based schools be permitted to provide substitute curriculum for provincial curriculum found to be instructing contrary to faith beliefs?
• Will teachers be required to join the Ontario Teachers Federation? If so, would they be required to strike if the public school teachers go on strike?

In 1988 Eden Christian College integrated into the public system in Lincoln County. Over time, the school was required to eliminated religion courses and chapel services as part of the regular curriculum. The hiring of teachers and administrative staff with shared beliefs of the school became prohibited and the school was required to remove the word "Christian" from its name. Most parents of students currently attending faith-based schools will expect a better effort if they are to join the public system.

The principle of public funding for faith-based schools is good but the details will have to be resolved before these schools make the decision as to whether or not to opt in to the public system.

Any effort to remove from religious Canadians the freedom of expression guaranteed under the Canadian constitution would be contrary to sustaining an open, plural and tolerant (a.k.a. liberal) society. Accommodating that expression in the public education system would be a reflection of our highest held societal values and a positive effort toward increased inclusiveness of religious Canadians in the diverse social fabric of Ontario.

Don Hutchinson is General Legal Counsel for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

 

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A ministry of
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada