4 min

No to funding religious schools

Gays and lesbians haven’t supported Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party for years. And now John Tory, the party’s leader, is prepared to sacrifice queers to the religious rightwingers who might.

There’s no question that Tory’s proposal to publicly fund religious schools is a cynical vote grab. The fact that he has absolutely no specifics on the plan is a sure sign of that. But the result for Ontario gays and lesbians could still be a resurgence of hate-filled religious propaganda — which queers would be forced to fund themselves.

Tory proposes to “associate” these religious schools with public school boards in some completely undefined fashion. The result, he says, will be to create peace and harmony across the province.

“This inclusive approach has proven to be successful in managing and respecting religious diversity within public education,” says a Tory press release. “It has taught children of different ethnicities and faiths to value our respective religious and cultural heritages, while also being unified by common standards and equivalent experiences.”

Well, when it comes to queer students, that’s bullshit. Gay students in public schools face harassment, homophobia, ignorance and violence on a daily basis from fellow students and sometimes teachers.

If there’s one thing — and it may be the only thing — that fundamentalists of all religions agree on, it’s that they hate queers. And yet the public — including queers — will be asked to pay for schools that are directly charged with teaching those beliefs.

When I interviewed him on the subject, Tory said that these schools would have to follow the provincial curriculum, as if that solved all the problems. But Tory said he had no plans to revise the curriculum to ensure that it was gay-inclusive. Ask any queer student you know. It isn’t inclusive right now.

And private religious schools that want to award provincial diplomas already have to follow the curriculum. But the ministry of education says beyond that they’re free to teach absolutely anything they want.

Tory told me that the schools would also be required to follow the province’s code of conduct. That would be the incredibly vague one that does mention sexual orientation, but only requires schools to “respect and treat everyone fairly.”

He wouldn’t say whether he would force religious schools to follow the equity policies of the school boards they will be “associated” with. And when I asked whether he would put more money into making sure various equity policies would be enforced, he expressed surprise at the very idea.

“This issue per se of money for enforcement of equity policies has never been raised with me,” he told me. “I’m not one of those politicians who’s going to say yes just because you raise it now.”

But the very fact that’s it’s never been raised with him tells me that nobody in the party has given any thought to the impact his policy might have on minorities. And it gets worse.

Tory says religious schools will be forced to hire teachers certified by the Ontario College Of Teachers. But once again, private schools that award diplomas already have to do that. And the College makes no specific reference to sexual orientation in its professional standards, anyway.

And even if it did, the Supreme Court has already ruled that homophobic beliefs are not sufficient reason to deny a teacher professional certification. Homophobic actions might be, but a religious school would be free to hire teachers from a teaching program such as the one at BC’s Trinity Western University, which requires students to sign a community standards document that includes a prohibition on homosexuality.

Tory’s dismissive response was that queers could file a complaint against a teacher with the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Now, the OHRC is a noble organization, but a complaint will take at least a year or two to wend its way through the system.

As for the question of equal treatment for queers, Tory was completely dismissive about the possibilities of expanding Toronto’s Triangle Program, either within Toronto or across the province. Remember the Triangle Program? Ironically, that’s the program for queer students run out of the basement of the queer-friendly Metropolitan Community Church Of Toronto.

“It’s not something I’ve contemplated before,” Tory told me. “I’ve never heard of it before.”

So to summarize. Religious conservatives who might vote for Tory get their own schools paid for by taxpayers. Queers who won’t? He’s never even heard of the one program in Canada targeted specifically to queer youth, and he won’t guarantee fair treatment for queer students elsewhere.

Now, there are a couple of possible upsides to Tory’s hare-brained proposal. One is that it has forced the Liberals and the NDP to come out strongly against the proposal. So if the Liberals return to power or the Conservatives win a minority, those two parties are committed to opposing the plan.

The other upside is that the Tory plan has sparked public debate, and the sentiment so far appears to be running against the idea. But the debate has not seriously touched on the real solution to the problem.

The argument for funding religious schools is that it’s unfair that Ontario funds Catholic schools, but doesn’t fund any other religion’s schools. And it’s true, it is unfair. But the solution should not be to fund them all, it should be to fund none of them.

Take away Catholic-school funding. Force Catholics and students from any other religion to attend secular public schools. By all means, let them be taught religion at home or in church. If parents insist, let them fund their own religious schools that can’t grant recognized certificates.

But the idea that taxpayers should have to fund schools that teach homosexuality is a sin or worse, the idea that God — whichever god — should be an integral part of our educational system, that’s an idea whose time should have passed by now.