2 min

Catholic fatigue

When the Durham District Roman Catholic School Board told Marc Hall he couldn’t bring his boyfriend to the prom, they didn’t realize it would open a discussion about the future of their public funding.

Now Ontarians are getting increasingly vocal about inadvertently giving their hard earned cash to an organization that actively discriminates.

“If religious schools are going to engage in discrimination that violates the public policy of our land, why are we giving them tax dollars?” asks Doug Elliot, the lawyer for the Coalition To Support Marc Hall.

“If an Ontario public school had made such a decision, it would be overturned immediately,” says Earl Manners, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation. Manners says that this is just one in a long line of double standards that has allowed Catholic and other private schools to discriminate in hiring, student enrolment and curriculum, such as removing evolution from science courses.

“The real question this issue raises is why should any institution that receives public tax dollars be allowed to ignore basic rights and protections afforded to all citizens of Ontario,” says Manners. The money going to Catholic schools comes from property taxes.

“You’re putting money into a pool, and part of that money is going to Catholic schools, whether you like it or not,” says Bob Gallagher, assistant to city councillor Olivia Chow.

“You used to be much more direct about your tax dollars,” says Cecilia Reynolds, associate dean of academic programs at the University Of Toronto’s Ontario Institute For Studies In Education. “Now it’s all going into the same pot and none of us have any say.”

Prior to 1997, homeowners had a choice between sending their tax dollars to public or Catholic schools. Former premier Mike Harris’s Bill 160 (part of which has been ruled by the Supreme Court Of Canada as being unconstitutional) set up a formula to fund Catholic schools from general tax revenue. That formula is still in place.

“If the case goes against Marc Hall, and the court says that Catholic schools are entitled to discriminate because they’re religious schools, then I think Canadians are going to start asking themselves, ‘Why are we letting our tax dollars support discrimination?'” says Elliot.

But if the judge finds in Hall’s favour, Elliot says it could turn out to be an unexpected blessing for the future of Catholic schools.

“It may be that people will feel reassured that the separate school boards are not allowed to discriminate,” he says. Even if the court finds that the school board does have the power to do what they’re doing, that power can be taken away with a change to the constitution.

“People might think that a constitutional amendment is not easily done,” says Elliot. “But the reality is that the twin of that amendment, the Protestant protection in Quebec, has already been done.” Parliament erased Quebec’s denominational school system at that province’s request in 1997.

The establishment and protection of Catholic Schools goes back to Confederation. Protestants, a minority in Quebec, received constitutional protection for their schools, and Ontario Catholics, then a minority, were granted the same.

Elliot says that the issue doesn’t end with Catholic schools – it extends to all charitable organizations.

“One of the things that I find so offensive in the current state of our charity law is that homophobic churches are entitled to the benefit of our charity law and yet AIDS advocacy organizations are not,” says Elliot. “As a nation, we have to decide the extent to which we’re going to allow our tax dollars to be used to support discrimination that we think is wrong, no matter what the justification is.”