(by Maria Kubacki, The Ottawa Citizen, April 7, 2007)- It has been a Holy Week for many. Christians are celebrating Easter, Jews are in the midst of Passover, and Muslims have been observing the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. For the faithful of all three major religions, passing on their traditions and beliefs is an important part of educating their children — something many believe is best done not only at home and in their place of worship, but also in school.

But in Ontario, only one group has access to a publicly funded, faith-based education: Catholics. Their right to a religious education dates back to the British North America Act and Confederation, when Catholics were a minority in need of protection in a majority Protestant province. But now the roles are reversed: Catholics are the single largest religious group in Ontario, and a broad coalition of religious minorities is asking for equal treatment.

“The discrimination against non-Catholics in this province has to stop,” said Elaine Hopkins, former principal of a Christian Montessori school in Ottawa and president of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools, which includes many religious schools. Ms. Hopkins is an advisor to the Multi-Faith Coalition for Equal Funding of Faith-Based Schools, which is holding a symposium in Toronto on April 16. Hosted by author and television personality Michael Coren, the symposium is the latest attempt to pressure politicians to address what a 1999 United Nations Human Rights Committee ruling called discrimination. “It’s a question of justice,” said Mr. Coren, who has three children attending private Catholic schools.

The timing is no accident. The Multi-Faith Coalition wants to stir up pre-election debate. “I have a feeling it’s going to be an issue,” said the coalition’s chairman, Ira Walfish, noting the provincial Conservatives say their party is sympathetic to the cause.

The coalition, which claims to represent several hundred schools across Ontario, wants Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Evangelical Christian and other faith-based schools to get the same public funding Catholic schools receive — whether directly or in the form of a tax credit.

While there are 675,000 students attending publicly funded Catholic schools in the province, Mr. Walfish estimates there are only about 50,000 children attending other faith-based schools. Parents have to pay between $3,000 and $11,000 to send their children to private, faith-based schools, a major deterrent for many. If faith-based education was publicly funded, more people might choose it.

Rabbi Jeremiah Unterman, director of education at Ottawa’s Hillel Academy, said his school would at least double its current population of about 320 students if parents didn’t have to pay more than $8,000 a year for a school that allows students to observe their faith, learn Hebrew and Judaic studies — and follow the Ontario curriculum. “I’d have to take over another building,” he said.

Doreen Barnes, principal of Ahlul-Bayt Islamic School in Ottawa, agrees cost is a barrier and said more families would choose her school if it was funded. Many Muslim parents must make sacrifices to pay their children’s $3,700 annual tuition. In return, though, they get a school that, in addition to the Ontario curriculum, teaches Arabic and Islamic studies, and celebrates Muslim holidays such as Muhammad’s birthday — which Ahlul-Bayt observed on Thursday with gifts for every child and a visit from Ray’s Reptiles.

“We are being treated as second-class citizens,” said Rabbi Unterman, noting that parents who pay to send children to private, religious schools also have to pay taxes for a public-education system they don’t use. “It’s simply not fair.”

Broader public funding for faith-based schools is supported by Catholics, including the Ontario Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Ontario Catholic School Trustees Association. “If religious education is good for Catholic parents, it should be good for other parents as well,” said John Stunt, president of the trustees’ association.

John Tory, leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party, has said the province is not being fair to non-Catholics. The specifics of the Conservative position on faith-based schools will be dealt with in the party’s platform, to be unveiled later this spring, according to Conservative spokesman Brendan Howe. The NDP supports the existing public and Catholic system, according to the party’s education critic, Rosario Marchese.

And the McGuinty Liberals have no plans to change the current system of public and Catholic schools, said Education Minister Kathleen Wynne. “Because of our history and our Constitution, those are the schools that we’re supporting.”

Mr. Walfish calls Ontario’s position “bizarre.” No other province gives one religion 100-per-cent funding and the other religions nothing, he said. Quebec, for instance, gives all faith-based schools about 60 per cent of the funding public schools receive. Alberta allows faith-based schools to be funded as part of public boards. It also provides 60 per cent of public-school funding to private schools, including faith-based ones.

But the Liberals are determined not to fund other faith-based schools — or any private schools. After taking power in 2003, they kept their campaign promise to cancel the previous Conservative government’s tax credit for private schools, including religious ones. It’s a question of money, say opponents of publicly funded, faith-based schools.

The Ontario Public School Boards’ Association and the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation worry that extending funding to non-Catholics would divert desperately needed money away from the existing public education system.

The education minister is also concerned that funding a range of faith-based schools would lead to social fragmentation in a province as diverse as Ontario. “There isn’t another province with people from as many backgrounds,” Ms. Wynne said. “We need in Ontario, and I believe in this country, to be promoting inclusion and to be promoting understanding among different people, and that can best be done in the publicly funded system as it exists now.”

Rick Johnson, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, worries that faith-based schools might not be comfortable with topics such as homosexuality, which is taught in the Ontario curriculum’s family-studies program.

Other critics say some religious groups — Christian, Muslim, Jewish or others — have conservative views on gender roles that are incompatible with the values of mainstream Canadian society. Muslim schools, for instance, may require female students and teachers to wear head-coverings, as Ottawa’s Ahlul-Bayt Islamic School does. The hijab is regarded by some as part of a repressive female dress code that emphasizes women’s inferior status in Islamic culture. However, Ms. Barnes, the school’s principal, said the women and girls at the school are strong and self-confident, not submissive.

Opponents of publicly funded religious education also raise the issue of diversity and multiculturalism. “Religious schools are inherently exclusive and discriminatory,” said Leonard Baak, president of Education Equality in Ontario (also known as OneSchoolSystem), a group dedicated to eliminating the separate Catholic school system in Ontario.

But Rabbi Unterman said his school teaches children that all people are made in the image of God and are part of one family. Hillel Academy also makes an effort to expose students to children of other backgrounds by participating in a sports league with other Ottawa independent schools and by partnering with Charles H. Hulse Public School, which has a large Muslim population. In addition, there is diversity among Hillel students, who share their Jewish faith but come from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds, he said. Some come from religious families, while others are concerned mainly with the cultural aspect of a Jewish education.

Besides, “Nobody’s worried about (diversity) with Catholic schools,” he said. Paul Triemstra, principal of Ottawa Christian School, said his school accepts all Christians, regardless of denomination, as long as they believe in Jesus. Up to 40 churches are represented, he said, including Baptist, Pentecostal, Anglican and Catholic.

Mr. Walfish, of the Multi-Faith Coalition, has a different take on the multicultural argument. “The whole idea of multiculturalism is that the faith group survives and continues, but at the same time is integrated into society and is benefitting from society and is providing benefits to society. Multiculturalism is not taking a faith group and shoving them into a school and saying, ‘You have to go to this school to be with everybody else.'”

Mr. Walfish, who attended Jewish schools for 13 years and has four children in Toronto Jewish schools, said faith groups can’t keep their culture and religion alive in public schools, where it’s difficult for them to study their history and beliefs, and observe dietary laws, dress codes, religious holidays and customs. The history of Jewish day schools in Canada proves that children can go to faith-based schools and still integrate into society, he said.

And the existence of Catholic schools in Ontario and other provinces also proves faith-based education does not lead to the fragmentation of society. “Is there a major division in Ontario between Catholics and people that go to public schools? I don’t see it.”

As for the concern that faith-based schools could teach children radical ideas that are unacceptable to mainstream Canadians — such as creationism in Christian schools or Islamic fundamentalism in Muslim schools — Mr. Walfish said the answer is simple. “If there’s funding, there’s more standards and accountability. Wouldn’t you rather have more standards and accountability?”

“To have that freedom in their own identity helps them interact in a multicultural, diverse community.” Faith-based schools also teach values that help students grow into good citizens, said Rabbi Unterman. “The Ten Commandments, honour your mother and your father — you don’t want children learning that?”

© The Ottawa Citizen, Saturday, April 07, 2007