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School Ruling Good for the SpiritSchool Ruling Good for the Spirit

School Ruling Good for the Spirit

A Saskatchewan Court decision upholding religious freedom and pluralism for parents and students shines a light in gloomy times, writes Cardus Education Director David Hunt.  

David Hunt
4 minute read

It seems rare to find good news amidst the challenges of physical-distancing and self-quarantining, but a recent Saskatchewan Appeal Court ruling gives much to celebrate for educational pluralism and religious liberty.

The unanimous decision in Saskatchewan v. Good Spirit School Division No. 204, given March 25, centred on education funding, and specifically, the question: Should taxpayers fund non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools?

This question has sweeping ramifications. In the words of the 2017 ruling’s trial judge, this is “one of the most significant lawsuits in the province’s history,” with implications for every student in Saskatchewan.

In the rural Saskatchewan village of Theodore, as students were dismissed for summer break in 2003, they said good-bye to their school. Permanently. Their school board, Good Spirit School Division (GSSD) – which oversees a district spanning 14,000 square kilometres – decided to close the only school in town. For budgetary reasons due to declining enrolment, the plan was to bus students to the neighbouring town’s school moving forward.

But in a display of civil society at its best, parents rallied to form a new school division, purchase the shuttered building, and re-open their community’s school – all in time for classes to start in September.

GSSD took issue with this, as operating funds are based on enrolment and, thus, follow the student. Since the reason for the school closure was budgetary constraints, potentially losing these students altogether compounded the issue.

Another matter was at stake. The community’s sole school re-opened as Saint Theodore, a Catholic separate school. It threatened not only GSSD’s financial monopoly but its secular sectarianism.

So, rather than celebrate the community spirit and continuance of local education for the children of Theodore, GSSD sued on two grounds. First, they argued against the legitimacy of St. Theodore’s as a Catholic separate school, and since separate schools are constitutionally entitled to full funding in Saskatchewan (as in Alberta and Ontario), GSSD’s second contention was that non-Catholics should not receive taxpayer funding to attend a Catholic school. In the process, GSSD presented constitutional and religious freedom arguments along the lines of: Funding a non-religious student’s religious education violates state neutrality and, therefore, is a violation of freedom of religion.

The Appeal Court rejected this constitutionally inconsistent line of reasoning.

This is a welcome relief to a recent series of rulings that undermine our first freedom, as Andrew Bennett points out in the second edition of An Institutional History of Religious Freedom in Canada, which was released this week. Both Quebec’s 2019 Bill 21, and the Supreme Court’s 2018 TWU law school decision, expressly violate freedom of religion. The B.C. Supreme Court also recently gave a problematic religious-freedom case ruling, as Brian Dijkema and I wrote in January. Conversely, in this most recent case, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal called out GSSD for discriminating against students based on their religion – or non-religion. How can the state determine who is and is not Catholic? Assuming that can be answered, is it appropriate for the State to do so? The decision explicitly avoids creating such a scheme.

Furthermore, the decision notes the inappropriateness of the GSSD making a religious freedom argument – not for themselves but on others’ unsolicited behalf – to discriminate based on religion to thwart religious education.

Thankfully, the Appeal Court justices cut through all the noise, and said GSSD’s case was made “almost entirely” for financial reasons.

The local-government school division essentially assumed the right to a monopoly. The irony seems to escape them: How is a new school ‘competition’ when GSSD, of its own volition, chose to close the doors of its Theodore school before a new school was even on the horizon? Moreover, when you choose to cease supporting one of the community’s central, identifying institutions, you should expect alternatives to emerge.

At bottom, the case is about a government-run school set to close being purchased by community members in order to keep it open – but as a religious school.

Sound familiar?

Convivium readers may recall Peter Stockland’s coverage and Fr. Raymond de Souza’s commentary last fall about the rejection of a small but rapidly growing Ontario independent school community’s bid to purchase a shuttered government school in rural Wolford, northeast of Brockville. Despite the independent school making the highest purchase offer on the property by a considerable margin, the local-government school board cited the “irreparable harm” of economic competition as the motive for their decision. Again, the board chose to close the school long before any ‘competition’ was evident.

In both rural villages – Wolford, Ont. and Theodore, Sask. – the community rallied to re-open a shuttered government school as a religious school, only to be opposed on economic grounds.

Although economic considerations are important, such considerations need to be weighed thoughtfully against non-economic trade-offs. In K-12 education, considering only market factors is failing to fully consider what is at stake and what is in the public interest. Students are not commodities nor nameless consumers. They are their parents’ children. They are also members of the community. And the school experience is not one of mere inputs and outputs. It is a complex ecosystem of living people. The people within it must be considered and cared for accordingly.

All K-12 education is public education, as it is in the public interest and for the common good. This is something Cardus’ research has long shown.

Such an argument has even more weight in provinces such as Saskatchewan, Alberta and Ontario where separate schools are fully taxpayer funded and constitutionally protected. To quote the Appeal Court’s recent decision, separate schools are a “parallel public system of education.” By law, “any [Saskatchewan] child resident in any school division [may] attend any publicly funded school within that division,” wrote the justices. Non-Catholic parents can choose a public Catholic separate school for their children, and Catholic parents can choose a public non-Catholic government-run school. Both are public: fully public. Thus, both are open to all Saskatchewan school-age children.

Recognition of that reality is perhaps why funding for religious schooling is an increasingly non-partisan issue. Both the ruling Saskatchewan Party and the opposition NDP strongly support the decision. Similar bi-partisan support for religious schools is evident in British Columbia. In an age of polarization and disruption, such solidarity for religious education is a welcome refuge of common ground – for Canadians of all political stripes.

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