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What About “Faith-Based Students”?
Parents send their children to public school on principle, or because they can’t afford to pay taxes as well as tuition at a Christian school. How does this affect their children?

Is it finished? Have the Ontario election results determined that there will be no further discussion about public funding for faith-based schools? The recent election brought to the surface an issue that has been submerged and bubbling for nearly a quarter of a century. How can we, in a pluralist and multi-cultural society, find ways to accommodate the faith-based perspectives of parents and students, other than Catholic, in the public school system? This question still needs to be addressed.

School boards have a duty to ensure that the public education system is a welcoming and positive school environment for all students.

In British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Quebec the answer has included a formula for public funding on a per-student basis for schools that follow established provincial educational requirements. In Ontario, Catholic schools are fully funded and other faith groups are required to either cover the cost of a non-public school – “private” but not in the sense of the “restricted to the wealthy” preconception that the words “private school” tend to engender – or seek accommodation within the public system. The debate in Ontario has been about funding faith-based schools. Even if Ontario’s solution is not public funding of faith-based schools, what about “faith-based students” attending public schools?

Many Christian parents send their children to public school based on principle, or because they cannot afford to pay both the taxes that fund public education and tuition for a non-funded school as well. How does this affect their children?

School boards across Ontario have been engaging in “equity audits.” These audits are designed to be an assessment of the school environment and curriculum to determine whether the accommodation goals set out in the Ontario Human Rights Code (OHRC) are being met. The reports have consistently recommended development of an “equity policy” for each school board that has been audited. Proposed policies in the audit report consistently recommend addressing the issue of “sexual orientation,” particularly how same-gender attracted students are being accommodated in the education system. However, sexual orientation is not the only ground under which students are to be accommodated under the OHRC.

The OHRC requires non-discrimination on the following grounds: race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed (religious belief), sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or disability.

During the closing days of the Ontario election, I received a phone call from a concerned parent that illustrates how the public school system in Ontario has created an environment that is discriminatory toward faith-based students. A follow up call revealed how the environment can be altered to make it more welcoming.

The parent’s teenage daughter had the courage to stand in science class in order to advise that she believed in a different theory of the origin of species, i.e. a creationist perspective rather than the evolutionist perspective presented by the teacher. She later caught another student drawing a cross with a circle around it and a slash through the circle on her locker. In a meeting with the principal that followed reporting of the incident the young girl had the courage to identify school atmosphere as an anti-Christian environment, providing the principal with examples. “The Chrysalids” is a book with a strong anti-religious bias. Likewise, the book “The Crucible.” There are more examples, but the point was made. Curriculum requirements revealed an anti-religious bias. The principal, in the interest of making the school a more welcoming environment, agreed to review the literature and other anti-religious expressions that fostered this environment in the school.

Faith-based students in the public school system are entitled to accommodation on equal footing with any other students on grounds of non-discrimination in the equity policy of every school board in the province. If school boards simply substitute “creed” or “religious belief” (or any of the other prohibited ground) for references to “sexual orientation” in the equity audit reports they are receiving it would be a great benefit in the policy development which is designed to make public schools a “welcoming place for all students.” In fact, that is the standard established by the Supreme Court of Canada in the 1997 case Ross v. New Brunswick School District No. 15. School boards have a duty to ensure that the public education system is a welcoming and positive school environment for all students. The court went on to require that school boards be ‘ever vigilant’ of anything that might interfere with that duty.

Nationally, the human rights legislation of every province and the requirements of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (see particularly s. 15) create a similar obligation.

Everyone operates from some form of “faith” perspective – whether in God, themselves or theories of economy or science. What is required of educators is to be aware of their own perspective and sensitive to the perspectives of their students. Accommodation does not require instruction on the beliefs of the other person or agreement with those beliefs but it does require acceptance of the other person and tolerance for their position.

The challenge in a pluralistic society is to respect diversity, including religious diversity. Recognition of pluralism includes and requires respect for the worldview of religious and other traditional communities represented in the public education system along with the non-traditional or neo-traditional communities for whom school board policies are being revised. When educators understand the concepts of pluralism, and are sensitive to that they communicate both values and facts, they may take steps to teach even the most controversial subjects with integrity and accommodate those whose personal beliefs, heritage or physical circumstances require accommodation.

At the beginning of the 2007 school year Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty stated he was “pleased to help celebrate another great year of continuing to make our public schools the best they can be.” Let’s encourage him, and those responsible for public education across the country, to keep the attitude of making public schools the best they can be. This can be accomplished, in part, by review of curriculum and equity policies to ensure “faith-based students”, along with all others, receive credible instruction and suitable accommodation in the public school system.

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

 

 
 
 
 

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