Can Catholic School Students in Ontario Skip Religious Classes? Yes, but This Teacher Was Punished for Saying So September 6, 2014

Can Catholic School Students in Ontario Skip Religious Classes? Yes, but This Teacher Was Punished for Saying So

It’s back-to-school time, and this year Catholic school teacher Paul Blake goes back to the classroom in England rather than in Canada, where he and his family moved after an Ontario school board marred his record as an educator with a disciplinary note. They say his behavior was “inappropriate,” that he “undermined the vision and mission of the board.”

His infraction? Last year, he informed a group of Grade 12 students of their right to be exempted from any explicitly religious content within their education.

He told them about a recent court case, in which the Erazo family of Brampton (considered part of the Greater Toronto Area) successfully won the right to keep their son enrolled at a Catholic secondary school despite his non-participation in the school’s religion classes and religious retreats, liturgies, or ceremonies. The ruling opened the door for non-Catholic students to demand access to good-quality Catholic schools without the religious baggage.

(Full disclosure: I grew up in Brampton, Ontario. During my ultra-religious teenage years I was heavily involved in the local Catholic parish affiliated with this school. I didn’t go to the secondary school at the heart of this case, but I have close friends and family who did.)

As for the actual legislation at issue, Ontario’s Education Act states that…

no person who is qualified to be a resident pupil in respect of a secondary school operated by a public board who attends a secondary school operated by a Roman Catholic board shall be required to take part in any program or course of study in religious education on written application to the Board.

Legally, then, what Paul Blake told his students is correct: students are allowed to seek exemptions from religious courses and in-school religious ceremonies.

Most Catholic school boards, however, prefer to keep as many students as possible from exercising that right. Thus, Blake’s principal told him (prior to the incident for which he was disciplined) to avoid discussing the court case with his students. When Blake was laid off, however, he decided to tell them the truth about the religious exemptions, which he felt the school board was trying to conceal from the students.

A Globe and Mail investigation backs up Blake’s observations. The newspaper found that school board officials have denied parents’ requests for exemptions, telling parents who have declared themselves as Catholic-school supporters for tax purposes that their children are not eligible for the exemption (though some parents say they’ve seen the denials persist even after they changed their tax status). The creators of myexemption.com list potential challenges students face when seeking exemptions; they include threats to withhold extracurricular activities, honor-roll status, and even graduation.

Whether you agree or disagree with Blake’s official reprimand, it’s hard to support the misinformation students are getting when they seek exemption from religious courses — an exemption that they have every right to request under current Ontario law.

Most students and families, who are told to “go to the public school” if they want to opt out of religious programming, are choosing their local Catholic school for valid, logical reasons that have nothing to do with the family’s religion. They may perceive that the Catholic school in their area provides a better fit than the nearby public option, in spite of any religious differences. Some families cite a longer commute to the nearest public school. Nor are all the families opting out of religious programming non-Catholics. Many sincere Catholics opt out because they want their children to focus on the math, science, and language courses that will best help them achieve their career goals.

Carolyn Borgstadt‘s family falls into that category: she is Catholic, but her son has never been baptized, and she sought an exemption so he could put the extra time into improving the math skills he’d need for a construction apprenticeship. On CBC Radio, Borgstadt put it this way:

It’s just a waste of time… religion just isn’t, in everyday life, it’s just not needed.

A 2012 study suggested it’s also a waste of money; the Federation of Urban Neighbourhoods of Ontario expected that a merger of the two school systems would save nearly $1 billion by cutting duplication of services and increasing economies of scale.

In an op-ed following the Erazo case, the Toronto Star’s Thomas Walkom asked rhetorically, “What’s the point of a religious school system if students can opt out of religion?”

It’s a fair question.

(Image via Shutterstock)


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