A student at a Catholic high school in Brampton, Ont. has been exempted from attending his school’s religious programs by an Ontario Superior Court ruling.
The student’s father, Oliver Erazo, fought the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board to exempt him from religious liturgies and retreats, including mass, under provisions in Ontario’s Education Act. According to the Act, everyone in the province has the right to attend any publicly-funded secondary school, including Catholic schools, without regard to religious belief.
Last week, the panel of three judges ruled in favour of Mr. Erazo’s application, which could set a precedent for Ontario families who want their children to go to Catholic schools without participating in the religious programs.
“We are considering our options, one of which is to appeal,” says Bruce Campbell, spokesman for the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board. The board has 15 days from the release of the decision to appeal.
According to the court ruling file, Mr. Erazo said he enrolled his sons, Jonathan and Amilcar, at Notre Dame because “it is the best school in the district” and he was unable to send them to public schools outside the district. Amilcar has since graduated from the school.
The school board’s policy on religious education states that all students must participate in an annual retreat and in the liturgical life of the school although students of any faith can attend Catholic high schools through an “open access” policy. According to the school board’s website, “it is not the intention of the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board to proselytize, however, for supervision, safety and community reasons, the entire school participates in all of the religious events that occur during the school year.”
The policy also mandates all high-school students take a religion course each year. However, Mr. Erazo had already arranged for Jonathan’s exemption from the courses after a long battle with the school board.
“He’s very happy that the dispute has been resolved,” Mr. Erazo’s lawyer, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said. “The decision will hopefully resolve similar disputes for parents across the province.”
“I think it’s a positive development,” said Leonard Baak, president of OneSchoolSystem.org, a group that advocates for the amalgamation of Ontario’s public and Catholic school systems. The group believes funding the Catholic school system is a waste of public money and contributes to inequities between Catholics and residents of other faiths or no faith. “With the religious divisions in Ontario’s school system, it often entails inconveniences for parents who aren’t Catholic or who are Catholic but who want a non-sectarian school environment for their kids.”
Mr. Baak said he believes that more parents, even Catholics, will follow suit.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of Catholic parents take advantage of this,” he said. Parents might send their kids to Catholic schools for a variety of reasons, including perceived quality and distance from their home. “I believe 80 to 90 per cent of the families using the Catholic school system do not go to church. That’s not why they choose that school system.”