At one time Ontario’s Catholic schools served a clear and narrow purpose: Their mission was to teach Catholic students a curriculum steeped in church doctrine. Their mandate was guaranteed as part of a bargain struck at the time of Confederation. Ontario agreed to fund a Catholic school system and Quebec would fund one for Protestants. It was a clumsy compromise that was arguably meant to protect language more than religion. Nevertheless, the separate school system in Ontario survives today – but the trouble is that Ontario’s Catholic schools appear reluctant to fully accept that their mission has changed in the more than a century that has passed.
For the latest proof, witness the controversy involving Catholic schools in Ontario routinely refusing to allow students to opt out of religion courses. Why should they, some may ask? After all, if a parent didn’t want their child’s education to involve religious instruction, why send them to a Catholic school? The answers vary. Some parents believe that the local Catholic school provides stronger discipline or more rigorous instruction. It may simply be a matter of convenience – the Catholic school may be closer to home than the public one. Since the late eighties, when the province decided to extend public funding to Catholic high schools, the reasons don’t really matter. That extension of funding means that Ontario effectively has two public education systems: a public system and a publicly funded Catholic system. The Education Act requires Catholic high schools to admit non-Catholic students and it also allows those students to opt out of religious instruction.
In case there was any doubt, the Ontario Superior Court recently ruled the exemption not only applies to religious courses, but also to liturgies and retreats. The decision is a logical extension of the Education Act and earlier court rulings, and it makes a lot of sense. The primary purpose of a publicly funded school is to teach academics, not faith. Students attending publicly funded Catholic high schools are currently required to take four religion courses, one at each grade level. Any student, particularly those that are struggling academically, should have the right to forgo those classes to focus more on academics.
The trouble is some Catholic schools across the province won’t let them. Some boards claim, in a strange twist of discrimination, that their non-Catholic students are eligible for an exemption, but Catholic students aren’t. They are wrong. Forcing religious classes on any student amounts to a violation of the Education Act and willful ignorance of the recent Ontario Superior Court ruling. Catholic schools should follow the rules if they continue to rely on public funds to operate.