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.