12 min

Fighting back religion: Part II

Religious leaders want public funding for own schools & influence over public schools

Credit: John Crossen

There’s a perception of schools in Canada as havens of multicultural harmony, where young people from all backgrounds work together and with tolerant teachers to learn the virtues of acceptance and openness.

The reality is considerably different. More and more, students from different religious faiths and cultural backgrounds are being segregated into private and religious schools, where they are taught only their own values and interact only with those from a similar background.

But the one thing all these schools — whatever their religious or cultural affiliation — seem to have in common is their unwillingness to go along with the public school system’s attempts to teach that gays and lesbians are entitled to live their lives as equals with equal protection under human rights legislations.

As Tony Lovink, an out gay Christian teacher in the Ottawa public school system, says, “All private schools tend to be at least implicitly homophobic. And I would say all religiously formed independent schools are definitely homophobic.”

In many parts of the country, these schools either receive direct government funding or else tax credits are provided to the parents of their students. In those provinces where such private school funding is not provided — Ontario, for example — the fight for such benefits is ongoing. And even in Ontario, an entire Roman Catholic school system is constitutionally funded by taxpayers — even though the church denounces Charter interpretations that recognize lesbian and gay equality rights.

The result is a battle for the hearts and souls of Canadian students, with the battleground being queer rights.

And so far private schools appear to be winning. But the fight is not limited to private and religious schools. Indeed, not content with the freedom to establish their own schools, religious groups are continuing to attack the public school system over the few evolving gay-positive steps being taken on issues like curriculum change.

In fact, in at least one case in Ontario — although none of those responsible want to talk about it — a proudly Christian school is part of, and fully funded by, a public school board and its taxpayers.

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In Ontario, there is virtually no control over what a private school can teach. According to Patricia MacNeil, a spokesperson for the provincial ministry of education, any school that wants to grant its students government-recognized Secondary School Diplomas must follow the official provincial curriculum. But schools that do not hand out government diplomas are not forced to teach the curriculum, and MacNeil says that even those that do so are free to teach whatever they want above and beyond the curriculum.

“They’re free to teach the curriculum,” says MacNeil. “But there is no formal ‘They must teach it.’ They must register with the ministry, but if they’re not teaching the curriculum, basically it’s a business.”

In fact, MacNeil’s advice for someone attempting to deal with any private school not following the curriculum is to contact the Better Business Bureau. Moreover, she says the ministry has only slightly more control over those that do follow the curriculum.

“In private schools that offer secondary school diplomas, we will go in and do inspections to ensure that their curriculum is in line. But we only deal with the curriculum.”

That lack of control is of considerable concern to the Coalition For Lesbian And Gay Rights In Ontario. CLGRO’s Tom Warner says queers are especially vulnerable.

“They still have to teach the basic curriculum. But there aren’t any other restrictions. They’re free to teach that women are inferior or homosexuals should be put to death or whatever.”

Private schools in Ontario also have considerable latitude in the teachers that they hire. Schools that choose not to follow the provincial curriculum are free to hire anyone they want, with any beliefs or qualifications the school deems appropriate. Private schools that do follow the provincial curriculum are required to hire certified teachers, who are members of the Ontario College Of Teachers.

But the College is not exactly leading the fight against homophobia in schools.

“We have ethical standards,” says Lois Browne, senior communications officer with the College. “Our standards talk about social justice and equity and being inclusive. There aren’t even terms like race and religion. There isn’t reference to sexual orientation. But you’d have a hard time arguing that it’s not included.”

Browne says the College has no responsibility in terms of school curricula. She adds the College has investigated teachers “once or twice” in the past on accusations of homophobia. But she says any investigations are purely complaint-driven.

And homophobic beliefs certainly aren’t any barrier to teachers being hired even in public schools. According to a 2001 Supreme Court Of Canada ruling in the case of Trinity Western University, being trained at a teacher’s college professing that homosexuality is wrong cannot be considered a disqualification. Trinity Western is a private school in British Columbia associated with the Evangelical Free Church Of Canada. The school offers teaching degrees upon completion of a five-year course, and requires students to sign a community standards document, which includes a prohibition on homosexuality.

When Trinity Western applied to the BC College Of Teachers for a fully certified teaching program, the BCCT refused to approve the application on the grounds that the school was discriminating against gays. Trinity Western appealed the case, which eventually ended up before the Supreme Court. The Court ruled that teachers cannot be disqualified based on their beliefs, but only if they are actually actively homophobic on the job.

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission website, “In Trinity Western, the Court concluded that the distinction between beliefs and conduct could serve as the marker of the proper scope of freedom of religion; ‘The proper place to draw the line is generally between belief and conduct. The freedom to hold beliefs is broader than the freedom to act on them.’ So long as a discriminatory belief is not translated into a discriminatory behaviour, individuals and institutions have the right to uphold those beliefs.”

In other words, it’s not what you believe, it’s when your actions step over the line that you’re violating Canada’s Charter, something long advocated by civil libertarians of all stripes.

But in practice, the court’s decision, and Canada’s ongoing attempts to balance religious freedoms with human rights, makes human rights complaints against schools problematic. Afroze Edwards, communications officer with the OHRC, says complaints can be filed against private schools under the Ontario Human Rights Code. But she couldn’t find a case where such a complaint has indeed been filed (in fact, there has been at least one, the case of Ottawa youth activist Jeremy Dias who took on his former Sault Ste Marie school board after graduation).

And while a complaint can be filed, private schools don’t face the same requirements to follow human rights legislation as publicly funded schools. It was this that led Keith Norton, the former head of the OHRC, to express his concern about homophobia in private schools in 2002, while opposing the Conservative government’s granting of tax credits to parents whose children attend those schools.

At a press conference, Norton said he was “deeply troubled by the lack of any regulatory requirement for private schools to comply with the provincial human rights code.”

That tax credit is at the heart of the battle over private schools in Ontario. Unlike many other provinces (see accompanying sidebar), Ontario — while fully funding the Catholic school system — does not now provide any funding to private schools. The Conservative’s bill to grant tax credits was repealed by the new Liberal government in 2003 before it could come into effect.

For many religious groups, that lack of funding is unacceptable. They say it’s discriminatory to fund Catholic schools, but not those of other religions. But opponents of private school funding, including Norton, say the lack of control over those schools makes it easy for them to teach prejudice, especially against queers.

Norton, who is gay and a former longtime provincial Conservative cabinet minister, said in 2002 that granting a tax credit could help create “an educational apartheid that breeds hatred and discrimination.

“If public funds are to be used in any way, directly or indirectly, to fund such schools, there ought to be some accountability and some scrutiny,” Norton said. “I am deeply worried that [the tax credit] could lead to a proliferation of small independent schools with no or little regulation to ensure that the curriculum that is taught will be consistent with public policy in Ontario, particularly as reflected in the human rights code.”

The Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation, which represents all teachers in Ontario public schools, shares Norton’s concerns.

“Gay and lesbian children are some of the most at risk,” says Desiree Francis, an executive officer with the OSSTF’s provincial office. “We tend to look at the whole child and the ways in which they could be vulnerable. We are very much involved in breaking down barriers.

“Our bill of rights begins by referencing the Charter and the Human Rights Code. We consider that a necessary education for our members, and they can take the education from there. I’m not sure that private institutions and religious schools accord that same consideration.”

Francis says the OSSTF is deeply opposed to any tax credit for private schools.

“These kinds of systems leech resources. It’s how you erode the public school system. We will not support any political party which supports vouchering or any funding outside of the public system.”

The OSSTF will soon have a chance to put their words into action. There’s a provincial election this year, and the Conservatives, under new leader John Tory, still support a tax credit for parents who send their children to private schools.

While the tax credit debate may be an election issue in Ontario this year, it’s not the only place that religion and schools are being debated. Even in provinces where private schools are funded — British Columbia, for example — religious groups continue to try to eradicate any trace of gay-positive teaching from the public school curriculum.

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In at least one case in Ontario, a religious group has succeeded not just in foisting its beliefs on the public school system, but in actually becoming part of the public school system, complete with full public funding.

Eden High School, located in the city of St Catharines in the heart of the Niagara Peninsula, describes itself on its website as “a publicly funded secondary school that operates as an alternative secondary school within the District School Board of Niagara. The school offers the prescribed Ontario education ministry’s high school program delivered in the context of a community which embraces a Christian faith-based world view.

At Eden, students must pass Bible class and grade 9 students have a religion module every day of the week. The Eden Advisory Board is made up of representatives of the Mennonite Brethren Churches, a Christian sect that preaches hatred for the “homosexual lifestyle”.

“God can free persons from oppressive addictions, and history is full of examples of such acts of liberation. However, for those who cannot overcome their orientation, the answer to their homosexuality is abstinence,” according a position paper posted to the Canadian Conference Of Mennonite Brethren Churches.

(See adjoining sidebar for the full story of Eden’s game of political hot potato.)

But even within the secular schools of the public school system, religious beliefs tend to raise their heads. Lovink points out that even the most liberal of curricula are reliant on people to teach them, and schools usually tend to follow the example of their principal. He points to his own experience at an Ottawa-area high school.

“I was working at a school that was very gay-positive. I decided in 2000 to come out and then we got a new principal. He was a Brethren, quite a fundamentalist. He made my life miserable. At the time I was teaching a course, Introduction To The Canadian Family. The course had an element mandated by the ministry on sexual orientation. He was not happy with my way of teaching it.

“How do you teach something like this when you’re gay? If you’re straight, you’re assumed to be unbiased.”

Lovink says he also got resistance from religious parents about the course.

“In one case, the parents were fundamentalist Christians. They asked for their child to be withdrawn from the class. One other got very uncomfortable.”

It’s precisely that unwillingness to expose their children to such teachings and changes in society that Lovink says is responsible for the rise of private schools.

“The school has as one of its goals to acculturate kids to a dominant way of thinking. Until the last five years, that involved marriage and having kids. The independent schools in Canada are growing phenomenally in part due to the changing nature of the values we teach. It’s definitely the case in the growth of fundamentalist Christian schools, who see their role as battling the degradation of Canadian moral values.”

But some religious parents are not willing to put their kids into private schools, preferring instead to try to prevent the teaching of any gay-positive material in public schools. In British Columbia, for example, a battle is currently raging over recent decisions of the provincial government to settle a human rights complaint brought by a gay male couple.

In 1999, Peter and Murray Corren launched a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal, charging that the province was discriminating against queers by failing to address gay, lesbian or transgendered relationships in public school curricula.

Last year, the provincial government instead negotiated a settlement with the Correns. The government agreed to introduce a new elective course on social justice that would include sexual orientation, race, ethnicity and gender issues. The province also agreed to review its existing curricula for inclusivity. The agreement stipulated that the Correns would be consulted about the section of the new course on sexual orientation and about the ways in which queer issues were addressed in the curriculum in general. The agreement also commited the government to seek input from groups, selected by the Correns, “with expertise in sexual orientation, homophobia and other issues of inclusion and diversity in the curriculum.”

And the agreement also specifies that parents are only allowed to withdraw their children from specific courses, and not from every class that addresses queer topics.

Even though private schools in BC that follow the provincial curriculum are partially funded by the province, the government has said it won’t force those schools to follow the new curriculum.

“It’s not anticipated that any change would impact the ability of an independent school to continue teaching courses from a faith-based perspective,” Corinna Filion, a spokesperson for the provincial ministry of education told the National Post.

The agreement only specifies that the Correns will be consulted, and not that their suggestions will necessarily be adopted. Yet the fact that they’re being allowed input was enough to get religious groups frothing at the mouth, complaining that once again religious parents were being discriminated against.

Calgary Bishop Fred Henry termed the curriculum alteration “a specialized ideological agenda that is being rammed down our throats.” He said the forced changes were part of the fallout from same-sex ‘marriage.'”

And Brian Roodnick, the chair of Concerned Parents Of BC — a group formed in August of last year in response to the Corren settlement — told Xtra West last September that the agreement grants “special access” to queer groups.

Roodnick insists his group is not opposed to gay education.

“We’re not fighting against homosexuality,” he told Xtra West. “We’re fighting for parents’ rights. You have to present both sides of the issue. When education only teaches one side then it’s more indoctrination or propaganda.

“It’s kind of like evolution and creation. The theory of evolution, it’s still just a theory. I mean, a lot of people think it’s a fact, but they call it the theory of evolution.”

Roodnick said the educational system has to respect the fact that some students disagree with evolution.

“You’re completely within your right to have that view. And there are people who disagree with the homosexual lifestyle.”

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Schools are crucibles for young people. They’re where the personalities of students are forged. It’s where queer youth can learn that it’s okay to be gay or that it’s something shameful to be hidden. It’s where straight youth can learn to be accepting of homosexuality or it’s where they can learn that it’s okay to hate queers. Or beat them up.

It’s a fight that’s tough for gays to win in public schools, even where the curriculum and the teachers may be on their side. In private religious schools, unregulated by anything but their own beliefs, it’s almost impossible.

As longtime activist Tom Warner of CLGRO says, those schools are free to teach homophobia.

“Private schools aren’t required to teach tolerance and openness. I think hatred is to a large extent learned. If there’s an environment in schools where it’s okay to preach hatred, children go away with the idea that it’s okay. The question is whether they act on it. The children don’t have a choice. It’s the parents who make the choice.”

Those parents are also continuing their fight against a gay-positive curriculum even in public schools, and in the battle for dollars, even supposed allies are willing to use queer rights as political pawns.

With at least some of the adult fights behind the community, the queer community is turning itself to the classroom, the books of learning, and the playground. It’s where vulnerable young queers is most likely to meet the self-righteous bully.

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Education in Canada is a matter of provincial responsibility, and provinces and territories deal with private school funding and control in varying ways. As of 2005, this is the state of affairs:

In Quebec, in 1997, the province replaced its Catholic and Protestant school system with one based on French and English language systems. As of October, 2006, all religious and private schools in Quebec — even unlicensed ones that do not receive government money — are required to follow the provincial curriculum and teach evolution and sex education. The schools can add to the curriculum, and thus could continue teaching creationism, but must include all elements of the provincial curriculum. Licensed private schools — which are required to follow the provincial curriculum — receive about 60 percent of their funding from the government. In 2005, the government proposed extending full funding to Jewish private schools, but backtracked after attacks on the plan. Greek private schools receive full funding, after the Parti Quebecois extended it in the 1980s as part of an attempt to promote the French language.

Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, New Brunswick and Ontario provide no funding for private schools.

But Ontario, Saskatchewan, the Northwest Territories and Alberta fully finance Catholic schools. Manitoba provides 50 percent of funding for Catholic schools.

British Columbia provides between 35 and 50 percent of funding for private schools if they follow the provincial curriculum and have provincially certified teachers.

And Alberta fully funds all Catholic, charter and francophone schools. The province also fully funds a Jewish school located in the Edmonton area.