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What about Equal Funding for Faith-Based Education?

In recent weeks newspapers are filled with articles and letters concerning public funding of faith-based schools. It could become Ontario's great election debate.

National and local Ontario newspapers have been filled in recent weeks with articles and letters to the editor on the question of extending public funding to faith-based schools. Public funding of faith-based schools would promote segregation and division according to some. Others see it as an initiative that would allow greater public scrutiny of an existing network of faith-based schools—not the expensive private ones that will likely remain so, but the cover-the-costs not-for-profit and charitable institutions that are educating tens of thousands of children.

The question of religious rights in education has been controversial in our nation since before there was a Canada.

In Alberta and British Columbia, publicly funded faith-based schools are operating successfully. The schools are required to meet provincial teacher and curriculum standards with oversight by public school boards. Recently, Newfoundland and Quebec moved away from funding faith-based schools.

So, who's right?

The question of religious rights in education has been controversial in our nation since before there was a Canada. This is one of the reasons why section 93 of the British North America Act (now the Constitution Act, 1867) guaranteed the denominational school system in place in each province at the time of Confederation. This was recognition not only of religious differences, but also of cultural differences.

Canada is constitutionally a multicultural nation. Section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms identifies "the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians" as one of the principles for interpreting the Charter. Canada is not a "melting pot," the term used in the United States to describe efforts to establish a common culture among its citizenry. Canada's multicultural nature began with a co-operative venture between those of French descent—predominantly Roman Catholic—and those of English descent—various expressions of Protestant Christianity—but now includes a rich mixture of people whose roots encompass the globe, and whose cultures are integrated with their own religious expressions.

Constitutionally, Canada prohibits discrimination based on religion. Section 15 of the Charter, and human rights legislation across the country, states this clearly. In essence, the same legal recognition we expect toward people based on their race, ethnicity or sexual orientation is required toward people based on their religious belief. Yet, despite heritage months to recognize race and culture or curriculum adjustments to encourage tolerance toward gays and lesbians many schools still prohibit religious expression beyond clothing requirements of certain faith groups.

The Canadian constitution also recognizes freedom of religion as fundamental within our society. In R v Big M Drug Mart (1985) Chief Justice Brian Dickson of the Supreme Court of Canada described the section 2 (a) Charter right in these words:

The essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination … provided inter alia only that such manifestations do not injure his or her neighbours or their parallel rights to hold and manifest beliefs and opinions of their own.

Note that the Chief Justice recognized the limitation on freedom of religion being the point at which its expression interferes with others, NOT with the desire of others to limit the right.

The United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Canada subscribes, states in Article 18 (4), "The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions." And, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that "[p]arents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their child" (S. 26, s.3).

… the question "Who's right?" is to be determined in a constitutionally multicultural (and multi-religious) society.

The general right of parents to determine the education of their children was recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Jones (1985). In that case the Court also recognized the right of the state to determine minimum education requirements.

The answer to the question "Who's right?" is to be determined in a constitutionally multicultural (and multi-religious) society. This society recognizes the right of parents to choose the kind of education to be provided their children as accepted law, as well as the right of the state to determine minimum education requirements. This society also has international obligations to which Canadian and provincial governments have committed us.

Thus, where in a province such as Ontario public funding of religious education is provided for one religious community, there is an obligation to provide equal funding for other religious communities. Such was the decision of the United Nations Human Rights Committee in a communication it forwarded to the government of Canada on November 3, 1999. The government of Ontario was found to be in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights anti-discrimination provisions found in Article 26. This situation would be corrected by extending equal funding to other faith based schools.

Publicly funded Catholic high schools in Ontario have been required to admit all students who live in their catchment areas since funding was extended to them in the 1980s. These schools have proven a popular choice for a number of non-Catholic families for decades. The parents of non-Catholic students consistently identify the quality of education and values associated with religious instruction as the reasons for their choice.

The Ontario Catholic high school experience reminds us that all education is value laden. What is taught in the classroom is accompanied by the values of the teacher. Many parents prefer the values taught in a faith-based environment, even if not their own faith.

Will publicly funded faith-based schools promote segregation and division? Spend a day at almost any urban or suburban public school now and you will find a measure of segregation and division, cliques and recruiting of pre-teens into gangs. Spend a day at almost any faith-based school and you will find instruction that promotes the "golden rule"—treat others as you would like them to treat you. This, by the way, is the same rule on which Canadian human rights are founded and tolerance in the education system was initially developed … until the Protestant school system became the public school system and faith, along with its values, was chased from the system.

Religious parents want back in, and its time we let them.

Don Hutchinson is General Legal Counsel for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.




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