4 min

Religious school funding raises endless questions

Most opposed to Tory's plan, but complacency is dangerous

It’s the issue that just won’t go away. Every time the debate over the funding of faith-based schools in Ontario shows signs of dying down, John Tory says something stupid to reveal just how poorly thought-out his scheme is.

This time it was his public musing over allowing those schools to teach creationism in their science classes. Tory quickly realized how stupid that idea was and promised that creationism would be relegated to religion class, as it is now in the Catholic system. But the questions remain.

How long will these schools remain content to keep creationism confined to religion class? Which one will be the first to challenge such a policy as unconstitutional? What other subjects will schools want to teach about in religion class? And what other subjects will faith-based schools want to drag out of religion class into the mainstream curriculum? Where will teachings on homosexuality fall?

Tory says religious schools will be required to follow the provincial curriculum which, largely in passing, portrays queers as normal enough to marry and raise families. But the curriculum also portrays evolution as scientific fact. If schools are allowed to question evolution in religion class, why not homosexuality?

Catholic schools already largely slide around this question via their “love the sinner, hate the sin” bullshit and their preaching of abstinence for everyone until marriage or death, whichever comes first. But any gay or lesbian who had to endure Catholic school was left in no doubt of the Catholic position. And what if a school of another faith wants to be more aggressive in their condemnation of homosexuality?

In the debate over the passage of the same-sex marriage bill, it was made clear that preaching hatred against queers is considered protected speech. As long as they can claim it stems from a religious belief, priests, mullahs and rabbis are free to preach that homosexuality is a horrific sin. What happens if a school decided to test this, despite Tory’s airy claims that these schools will have to follow provincial codes of conduct and the Ontario Human Rights Code?

But there are many further questions. Most basic is what will qualify as a religion under this funding. Like everything else, Tory has no real answers on this subject. Will Scientology qualify? Maybe. Could I start a religion and demand public funding to start a school? Maybe. The possible constitutional issues involved in deciding what is officially considered a religion are staggering.

What numbers will be required to qualify for school funding? If a small town has five Muslim students, to take one possible example, could their families demand a faith-based school for them?

Then there’s the many questions around teachers. Presumably faith-based schools will want to hire teachers that share their beliefs. Since these schools will now be “associated” — to use Tory’s vague term — with a public school board, this would require the school board to discriminate on the basis of religion in terms of hiring practices. The Human Rights Code actually allows discrimination under certain conditions, including allowing private faith-based schools to hire fellow believers. But a public, taxpayer-funded school board has never been allowed to discriminate in such a fashion.

Then there’s the question of teacher numbers. Some parents now pay thousands of dollars per year to send their children to a private religious school. The result is that they’ve become accustomed to a certain level of luxury in terms of class sizes, teacher numbers and facilities that a public school system is unable to match. Will they be content to see class sizes increase and teacher numbers decrease? Will they be allowed to put their own money into their new publicly-associated schools? Will we end up with a two-tier system of education?

Tory has said that in some cases the religious schools will be allowed to maintain their current buildings. Like everything else, though, he’s vague about the details. If there’s a number of different faith-based schools already existing in a public school board’s catchment area, will they all be allowed to keep their facilities? Which ones would have to give them up? Would they each be segregated within an existing public school building? Would they share classrooms with public students? How about sports teams or extra-curricular activities? What if the faithful don’t want their children mixing with unbelievers?

Tory says his plan will cost $400 million a year, but the plan has no breakdown for how this money will be spent. Will it be spent at the discretion of the public school board involved? Or will they be mandated to spend a certain amount on each faith-based school?

The questions are endless. The answers are in extremely short supply. The good news so far is that a large majority of Ontarians, including a majority of religious believers, are strongly opposed to Tory’s plan, and show no signs of moving away from that. Even Tory has been forced to promise a free vote on the matter.

But complacency is dangerous here. If those opposed to this plan, including Ontario queers, decide they don’t need to worry and stay home, the Tories could win. And, even with a free vote, Conservative MPs will vote for it if they think it won them the election. Even if they don’t win, if there is not an overwhelming show of opposition to this plan, the implications are dangerous.

If this plan is seen as a vote-getter, what’s next when it comes to catering to Ontario’s religious types? We’ve seen how Stephen Harper has used opposition to same-sex marriage to rally fundamentalists behind him. We’ve seen how George Bush has done the same thing, and inspired many states and cities to ban gay rights bills in the process.

Don’t be fooled by the sheer stupidity of this plan. If it’s seen as successful, it’ll just be the start. So on Oct 10, get out there and vote against the use of your tax dollars to fund religious schools.