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Clark Hunter, Sarah Kirsop, Marjorie Kirsop, Leah Kirsop and Paul Kirsop play Monopoly together in their home in Morinville after arriving home from school at Notre Dame Elementary on Wednesday March 2, 2011. (Jason Franson Globe and Mail/Jason Franson Globe and Mail)
Clark Hunter, Sarah Kirsop, Marjorie Kirsop, Leah Kirsop and Paul Kirsop play Monopoly together in their home in Morinville after arriving home from school at Notre Dame Elementary on Wednesday March 2, 2011. (Jason Franson Globe and Mail/Jason Franson Globe and Mail)

In an Alberta town, parents fight for a secular education Add to ...

It wasn't until her seven-year-old son asked her if he'd burn in hell that Marjorie Kirsop became concerned.

A Catholic education is the only local option for the Kirsop family and everyone else in Morinville, Alta., a community of 8,100 northwest of Edmonton. It's a unique situation, rooted in the town's origins as an outpost of French-Canadian Catholicism in the late 1800s. But this fall, when five-year-old Sarah Kirsop declared she had converted to Catholicism, her mother joined a group of local families who are challenging the status quo.

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Their campaign for religion-free public education has met resistance from the local public school board - the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division - and drawn little more than a polite hearing from local politicians and Alberta's Ministry of Education.

The dissident families, who number between five and 15 depending on who is counting, say they want what other Canadians have: freedom of religion, or, in this case, freedom from religion.

The Alberta School Act allows children to be excused from religious or patriotic exercises or instruction. "But in a Catholic school, the entire curriculum is permeated with the Catholic theology, hence the problem," said Frank Peters, an expert in school governance and a professor of education at the University of Alberta.

The parents see their predicament more personally.

"When every other public school division, not just in Alberta, in the country is non-denominational, how can our public school division tell all of our children, 'It's Catholic education, you're the problem and you should leave?'" said Donna Hunter, a Morinville mother and member of the group.

The school district says it has tried to accommodate the Morinville parents, even offering to pay to have their children bused to another district. District superintendent David Keohane said that the students' commute wouldn't be much longer than it already is, less than 20 minutes.

The parents filed an appeal with Alberta Education in January and are waiting to hear back. But Mr. Keohane has come to believe the Morinville parents will settle for nothing less than a secular school in their town, and his district isn't willing to hand one over one of the four schools that it administers in Morinville.

"Handing over the keys to a building … we don't see that as being either within our mandate, within the scope of the legislation or fiscally prudent," he said.

Sharing space with other districts is a testy subject in provinces like Alberta, where public and Catholic school boards are often one and the same.

The town takes its name from Jean-Baptiste Morin, who drew French-speaking settlers to Alberta from Quebec in the late 19th century. The discovery of coal deposits in the area fuelled its growth in the early 20th century, and more recently it has emerged as a less expensive housing alternative within a short drive of Edmonton.

Morinville's unique situation, in which the only public school board is a religious one, came about through the collision of that history with a redrawing of the district maps 16 years ago.

Only Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta still have patchworks of public and separate, protestant and Catholic school divisions. Over the years, protestant divisions have become secular and many have amalgamated with like-minded neighbours. Mass amalgamations in 1995 in Alberta left Morinville being serviced by a single public Catholic board, while the region's secular board, the Sturgeon School Division, was confined to areas around Morinville.

Even today, Sturgeon's head offices are in an old school building in the heart of Morinville, but the district's boundaries trace a doughnut around the town.

"It's a pretty unusual set-up," said Michele Vick, Sturgeon's superintendent.

Her district is amenable to making arrangements for busing Morinville children to a non-denominational Sturgeon school. This is one of the options put forward by the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division that Ms. Hunter's parent coalition finds unacceptable.

"It means longer bus rides and it cuts us out of their education," said Ms. Hunter. "As non-residents of the school district, we wouldn't be able to vote for our trustee, or run for trustee."

Another option put forward by the Catholic board is for parents to take their children out of religion classes. Twenty per cent of elementary students and 70 per cent of high school students in the district already do this, attending health classes instead.

"The idea of excluding the children from religious instruction is ridiculous because the system itself advertises that the whole curriculum in their schools is permeated with the teachings of the Catholic church," said Mr. Peters, the governance expert.

The district is clear that religion in its schools isn't isolated to one class a day. Students pray before lunch and snacks, sing songs about Jesus and move through classrooms adorned with doves, crosses and other religious symbols.

In a letter posted on its website board officials write: "Through faith-based encounters with learning, our students come to understand a journey of life which extends from knowing the Christ within, to acting as Christ for others."

Mr. Keohane said he believes that this religious component is a reason his students perform above average on province-wide tests and diploma exams.

In January, when the board's trustees voted unanimously not to provide Morinville parents with a secular education, a heated debate erupted in the comments section of MorinvilleNews.com.

"Way to go to the GSACRD School Board! Not wavering in the face of 7 parents' concern over a little prayer and the intent of teaching Christian values," one wrote.

"Why should our kids have to drive by four public school [sic]in their own neighbourhood to get the same secular education that every other Albertan enjoys and is entitled to...." wrote another.

Ms. Hunter says the coalition includes about 15 families, and a large number of quiet supporters and demographic trends are likely to mean their ranks will grow.

Morinville isn't as devout as it once was - only 30 per cent of the children attending the Catholic school are Catholic. Like the Kirsops and the Hunters, the town's working-class families are generally recent arrivals who came in search of affordable housing. The transformation is starkly defined in the 2006 census, which shows that this former bastion of French-speaking Catholicism had only 140 people using French most often in the home out of a population of 6,685.

The timing of the Morinville uprising couldn't be more uncomfortable for Alberta's Minister of Education, Dave Hancock. Whatever decision he makes on the Morinville parents' appeal is sure to offend voters of one stripe or another.

When pressed by another member in the legislature, Mr. Hancock acknowledged that the lack of a secular option in Morinville was unacceptable, but deferred to the Catholic school board on how the situation should be remedied.

A spokesman for Mr. Hancock, Eoin Kenny, said that the school district has satisfied its obligations under the province's School Act, which is currently undergoing an overhaul.

"At this point, the minister has chosen not to intervene and is allowing locally elected school boards the autonomy to deal with their own local issues," Mr. Kenny wrote in an e-mail.

MLA Ken Kowalski has offered to meet with the families, but did not answer a request for comment. Morinville's mayor told a local newspaper that there is nothing the town council can do because schooling is outside its jurisdiction.

Ms. Hunter is looking for a lawyer in case Mr. Hancock's ministry denies her appeal.

"If the provincial government won't step in, then I'll have to go to the courts," she said. "I can't believe I have to file a court case to get a public education. I feel torn; it would be easier to just move."

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