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As controversies pile up – such as Catholic boards trying to exclude gay-straight alliances in the Catholic schools; or a Catholic board trying to block donations to groups that favour contraception, abortion or embryonic-stem-cell research – the case for government funding of Catholic schools crumbles.Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

The Catholic schools are in hot water again.

This week a subcommittee at the Toronto Catholic board voted not to include the terms gender expression, gender identity, family status and marital status in the board’s updated code of conduct.

The issue of what terms to include in the codes has been batted around by the board since the Ministry of Education told school boards around Ontario to bring their codes of conduct in line with new provincial guidelines. Those guidelines state that it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of gender expression, gender identity, family status and marital status. Some parents and trustees at Catholic boards object. They fear that the wording could encourage students to do things contrary to the Catholic faith. What’s next, asked one woman, drag queens in our schools?

Education Minister Stephen Lecce says he hopes the board will comply with the ministry edict in the end. “My expectation is that every child, irrespective of their differences, will see themselves reflected in school, and more importantly, the human-rights code,” he said on Thursday.

The clash was the latest incident to underline the contradictions that arise from public funding of Catholic schools. Those schools believe they have the right to be, well, Catholic. “While adhering to Ministry of Education requirements, Catholic schools deliver curriculum that is enhanced by Gospel values,” says the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association. “At the heart of Catholic education is the person of Jesus.” Yes, but how can they reject the ministry’s anti-discrimination rules when they are living on the public dime?

The same thing happened a few years ago when some Catholic boards tried to exclude gay-straight alliances that aimed to defend LGBTQ youth in the Catholic schools; or when a Catholic board tried to block donations to groups that favour contraception, abortion or embryonic-stem-cell research.

As these controversies pile up – and there are bound to be more – the case for government funding of Catholic schools crumbles. Publicly supported separate schools are an absurd throwback in a diverse city such as Toronto. Catholics are no longer an oppressed minority, in need of separate schooling. Protestants are no longer the dominant group. Those old divides of early Canada have thankfully melted away. Yet the Catholic system carries on, as though this were 1895 instead of 2019.

Taxpayers foot the bill, underwriting a vast network of schools across the province. There is no possible justification for it any more except fear and inertia. Politicians of all parties are wary of the backlash they would undoubtedly face from enraged parents if they cut off public funding to Catholic school boards and folded them into a single public system, as they should have done decades ago. Easier for them just to let sleeping dogs lie, falling back on the old argument that they cannot undo an entrenched constitutional right.

The result is a new form of discrimination. No other religious group gets government support to run a separate-school system. Not Jews. Hebrew schools don’t run on public money. Not Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists, who have come to the Toronto region in their hundreds of thousands in recent decades from South Asia, East Asia and the Middle East. In a society that claims to treat everyone equally regardless of background, this is impossible to defend.

John Tory once promised to fix it by extending government funding to all religious schools. The Toronto mayor was leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives then, running in the 2007 provincial election. Voters didn’t like the idea. They bridled at separating children by faith. Yet that, of course, is just what we do by having a separate, Catholic system. Better to have a single system in which children of all backgrounds mix and mingle. The schools are our engines of integration, the place where kids from families who are new to this country learn to be Canadian.

At least one provincial politician sees that. Alvin Tedjo, a Catholic who is running to lead the provincial Liberal party, says he would end public funding of Catholic schools. It is about time someone said it.

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