CBC News “Go Public” ran a story recently about the “dark secret” of religious schools. Initially, the story got a lot of attention, but was then swept away as the SNC-Lavalin scandal took on new life with Minister Jane Philpott’s resignation from the federal cabinet. Nevertheless, the “dark secret” of the Surrey Christian School in B.C. managed to ignite a social media frenzy. Thousands of Canadians took umbrage at the “discriminatory” nature of religious schools receiving government money while requiring teachers and staff abide by the schools’ code of conduct.
Three points come to mind that need to be addressed. First, this is not a “dark” secret; second, this is not a “secret;” finally, the government funding argument is a red herring.
The notion of exposing a “dark” secret suggests there is something sinister about a religious community establishing a school in accordance with its religious teachings. One cannot help but notice the unease – even outright aversion – expressed by many commentators against Christian institutions. Those of us who have committed our lives to working in the Christian charitable sector have no choice but to develop a thick skin as we continue to minister. Indeed, given our faith’s high expectations, it is hardly surprising that, when we fail, we are harshly judged not only by ourselves but by the public.
It is simply untrue, however, to imply that Christian schools are “dark” because they expect staff to abide by the contracts they voluntarily sign. Rather than dark, it is luminescent. Expectations are transparently clear from the get-go. It is not arbitrary. It is a statement of what the religious community lives by and, as we see from time to time, are evaluated by. The concept is not unusual: all employers, whether religious or not, establish standards for their employees. Specifics may vary, but as long as they are lawful, we accept that certain restrictions are not only normal but necessary to maintain the integrity of an institution.
Nor is it a secret that Christian schools hold their staff to the agreement. In most cases you will find that religious schools have their statements of belief posted on their websites for the world to read. The reason is obvious. They are carving out a haven, distinct from the society at large, so that they may live their lives in accordance with their conscience. Their standards may not appeal to everyone, which is precisely why they have established institutions separate from the public system. Their beliefs are not being imposed on anyone who does not voluntarily choose to work or study in that unique environment.
Secondly, Christian education of young people is not new. It’s been around for a while – thousands of years, in fact, in one form or another. No secret. Perhaps society has forgotten, but that doesn’t mean Christian schools have been hiding furtively, trying to cover their dark misdeeds. Unfortunately, it seems the public is only reminded when a disgruntled member of the community is upset that their religious commitment has been weighed and found wanting. As traumatic as that experience may be, it gives the public no right to remove the freedom of the religious community.
Religious freedom is a pillar upholding our democratic ideals. It is a load-bearing beam that supports pluralism and respect for difference in a peaceful society. We must recognize that others are free to hold beliefs that may cause us discomfort, just as we have the right to embrace our own convictions.