TORONTO, Aug. 27, 2010 – As students return to school in the coming weeks, several ongoing situations pose challenges for the rights of parents in education, and the Catholic nature of publicly-funded Catholic schools.
In British Columbia, an agreement in 2006 between the B.C. Ministry of Education and two homosexual activists, Murray Corren and the late Peter Corren, requires boards to make curriculum materials as “gay friendly” as possible. It also created a new social justice option for Grade 12 that includes “non-heterosexual realities.”
The League asked all public school boards if and how they will accommodate the wishes of parents and students who object to curriculum demands for reasons of conscience and religion, or who wish their children to receive the information in an alternative format, up to and including removal from class. In response, boards educating a majority of public school students have said they will honour requests for accommodation based on freedom of conscience and religion. The League plans to revisit this with the school districts this Fall.

In Quebec, Catholic and other parents opposed to the new, mandatory program in ethics and religious culture (ECR) have launched court cases aiming to give parents a choice in religious education. Until the course was launched in 2008, parents chose between Catholic, Protestant or non-religious moral instruction, with over three quarters choosing the Catholic option.

In a separate case brought by Loyola High School, which sought to cover the ECR course material in a Catholic context, Judge Gerard Dugre ruled that the imposition of the course on a private school was “acting in a totalitarian fashion.” However, the government intends to appeal, despite polls showing that a majority of parents support choice in the religious education of their children.

In Ontario, two separate but not unrelated issues brought the rights of parents, particularly Catholic parents, into the spotlight earlier in the year. In March, Premier McGuinty announced that changes to the sex education component of the province’s health and family life curriculum – some of which would have included discussion of sexual intimacy and “gender identity” as early as Grade 2 – would apply equally in public and separate schools. Catholic educators asserted that any changes would be adapted to reflect Catholic teaching and be made part of the “Fully Alive” program. (The changes were withdrawn after parental backlash.)

Later, some parents and teachers expressed concerns about the province’s Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy, which is being implemented in all Ontario school boards over several years. Much of the policy is positive, reflecting an emphasis on the equality of all people and the need to treat everyone fairly, expressed through the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination (race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, family status or disability).

However, questions were raised about some components. Many asked how same sex marriage, for example, could be presented as equal to traditional marriage in the setting of a Catholic school, or whether any faith-based school would be able to justify limiting hiring to members of its own creed.

On the latter point, there is case law supporting the rights of Catholic schools to insist on proof of Catholicism in the hiring of teachers. The rights of Ontario’s Catholic schools are constitutionally guaranteed. As such, the right to adapt any new course material for use in a Catholic school should not be in question.

The League has spoken to officials at most Catholic education organizations, including the Institute for Catholic Education and the Toronto Catholic School Board, about these concerns. All have insisted, both with us and in their public statements, that the Catholic nature of our schools is important to them and will be preserved.

The crux of the matter, and perhaps the proverbial elephant in the room, is that most parents take little or no interest in general school matters that they perceive as unrelated to their own children. Ontario’s Education Act states that parents can remove children from classes to which they have religious or conscientious objections, but there aren’t many requests. Declining voter turnout has been a concern in all elections for several decades, but it is truly abysmal in elections for school board trustees; in Ontario’s Catholic boards, over half of trustees were acclaimed in the 2003 elections.

Greater involvement in choosing who helps operate our schools, and some effort to get involved at the local level, are the real answers to upholding parental authority in education. Provincial and national organizations are helpful, but they can’t take on roles that properly belong to parents themselves.

© Catholic Civil Rights League, August 27, 2010

– From our August newsletter. Subscribe here.