An Ontario Catholic high school teacher was disciplined for informing his students they can’t be forced to study religion, underscoring the determination of Catholic school boards to get students to take religious studies.
The teacher, Paul Blake, had a disciplinary note attached to his file in May, after he told a group of Grade 12 students of a recent court case that affirmed their right to an exemption from religious courses and ceremonies.
A panel of Ontario Superior Court judges made that ruling in April. In the months since, Catholic school officials have been denying students requests for exemptions based on school boundaries and property tax statements. In multiple correspondences reviewed by The Globe and Mail this summer, Catholic school board officials from across the province argued students whose parents have declared themselves to be supporters of Catholic boards must participate in religious studies.
The Education Act states that any student qualified to be a resident pupil at a public secondary school cannot be required to take part in religious programs or courses. Public school boards say they accept all students regardless of faith or where they attended elementary school. But Kathy Burtnik, president of the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association, said the group has received legal advice that Catholic students are not eligible for an exemption.
“It’s not a menu,” she said. “If you come to a Catholic school you have to expect [the Catholic faith] as the basis of your entire education.”
Minister of Education Liz Sandals refused to say Wednesday whether she will continue to let Catholic schools force students to study religion against their will. Barbara McMorrow, the director of education at the Catholic school board in Peterborough where Mr. Blake worked, said in an e-mail that she cannot comment on matters involving board personnel.
After the court decision in April – which ruled that students couldn’t be forced to participate in any faith-based courses, liturgies or programs – Mr. Blake sought advice from school administrators and co-workers at St. Peter’s Catholic Secondary School. He started an e-mail chain in which he asked how to discuss the issue with students. Many colleagues reacted with surprise at the ruling, and said they had been led to believe that students were required to take religious studies. Mr. Blake was instructed by the school principal never to discuss the matter with students.
Three weeks later, Mr. Blake was pulled from teaching his first-period class and told that, after 13 years with Peterborough’s Catholic school board, he was one of a handful of teachers being declared surplus at a time of declining student enrolment.
He returned to class and told his students he was being laid off, and then told them that school officials were hiding the truth from them – that they were in fact not required to study religion.
“I figured I had nothing left to lose,” he said in a recent interview. “Some of my students were quite surprised and they were like, ‘All these years I’ve been taking this course and I didn’t need to?’”
He was called into a meeting in the principal’s office the next day in which administrators informed him a disciplinary note would be added to his file, and available to any future possible employers. The note describes his actions as “inappropriate” and states that his discussion of religious exemptions “undermined the vision and mission of the board.”
Out of work and frustrated with the Ontario school system, Mr. Blake took a teaching job in Norwich, England, where he recently moved with his family.
Students attending Catholic schools are asked to take one religion credit each year of their high school career – 70 minutes of religious instruction every day for four full semesters. A right to exemption from religious students was inserted in the Education Act in the late 1980s, when public funding was extended to Catholic secondary schools and enrolment was opened to non-Catholic students.