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Edmonton area schools sacrifice boundary rights for greater public good

Marjorie Kirsop walks with her kids Paul 7, (left) and Sarah 5, Kirsop after the school bus from Notre Dame Elementary School dropped them off near her home in Morinville on Wednesday March 2, 2011.

Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/jason franson The Globe and Mail

For the parents of Morinville, Alta., it's a miracle.

Their small community northwest of Edmonton, where for decades the only schools have been Roman Catholic, will likely have a public, non-denominational school by the fall.

Alberta's minister of education, Thomas Lukaszuk, introduced a bill Wednesday that would undo the peculiar twist of school division boundaries that left Morinville without a secular public school.

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If it passes, the bill will meet the demands of families who began campaigning to bring a non-religious school to their community more than one year ago. Initially, the province had referred them to their local school division, the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division, which insisted the only education it could offer was one permeated by the teachings of Christ.

The bill comes at a time when Canadian schools are grappling with God's place in the classroom.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last week that a Quebec family could not pull their children from a mandatory ethics and religion program on the basis that it might confuse their children about the Roman Catholic beliefs being taught at home.

Quebec no longer has Catholic separate schools, leaving Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario as the last remaining provinces to have fully publicly funded Catholic schools.

As sex education curricula become more progressive, and education ministries address issues such as homophobic bullying, Catholic schools are struggling to bridge a growing gap between popular opinion and church doctrine.

In Morinville, church doctrine permeates the school day. In their fall report cards, students are graded on their "growth in Christian values."

At least four parents filed complaints with the Alberta Human Rights Commission, and the issue seemed at a standstill until Wednesday's announcement.

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"We've waited so long for this," said Marjorie Kirsop, one of the parents who launched the campaign. "We're actually getting a public school board and we can vote for trustees. We're ecstatic."

The new legislation re-draws school division boundaries so that for the first time in history, Morinville will be served by a secular school board, the Sturgeon School Division. The shuffle will mean that another local school board had to give up the rights protected by its designation as a separate school board, and that the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division will likely end up having to hand over all or part of one of its schools.

"Everybody in this arrangement has given up something, but they have given up that something for the betterment of the system," Mr. Lukaszuk said.

The minister said he will make a decision "in the coming weeks" about how many classrooms the Greater St. Albert Catholic Regional Division will need to share or hand over to the secular school division.

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