A pious Hamilton father’s legal fight against a school board only reinforces the notion that religious beliefs and a publicly funded school system simply do not and should not mix.
I grew up on the west coast, where a religious education is confined to exclusively private schools. But it wasn’t always so. When I was in grade one, Mrs. Yardley would have the class recite the Lord’s Prayer and read bible passages—and, as the only Jewish kid in class, I had to stand out alone in the hallway. It was kind of an intense experience for a six-year-old, so it’s always been disconcerting to me that Ontario has a taxpayer-funded Catholic school system. That feeling has grown exponentially over the past year, as my toddler has begun inching closer to the public-school system.
First came news that the anachronistic, taxpayer-paid Catholic school system was fighting for their right to basically let gay kids to be bullied without recourse. Then, during this first week back from summer break, the Toronto Star reported that conservative Christian and Muslim parents have started sending “Traditional Values” form letters to non-separate school boards across the GTA demanding the right to pull their children out of classes if the curriculum challenges their biblical belief systems.
The response to such a request should be “hell no.” Parents do not have the right of an a la carte curriculum—they do, however, have the right to pull their kids out of public school altogether. If any parent wants to be taught a Christian or Islamic worldview—or Jewish, Hindu*, or any other religion—then they are free to enroll their children in a private faith-based school, or home-school them. But if they choose to take advantage of a school system that is funded by people of all—and no—faiths, then they must deal with an equality-rooted and evidence-based education.
The flashpoint for these debates is Bill 13, Ontario’s new Accepting Schools Act—or as the The Catholic Register called it, in what sounds suspiciously like secular sarcasm, “so-called anti-bullying legislation”— that, among other things, prevents Catholic schools from banning Gay-Straight Alliance clubs.
When the bill was passed last June, The Catholic Register also disingenuously attacked Premier Dalton McGuinty (as well as the “shameful support” from the Catholic Teachers union) for causing “Catholic leaders to be unjustly painted as intolerant and homophobic” and blamed the premier for the public turning against Catholic education. But it was the Catholic school trustees’ demand to allow discrimination in the name of religious freedom—an especially egregious request coming from a publically funded institution—that has eroded their support to the point where over half of Ontario residents are now opposed to having the secular state footing the Catholic school system’s $7 billion (!) annual bill.
This, by the way, is the part of Bill 13 that got them all up in arms: “The people of Ontario and the Legislative Assembly … believe that students need to be equipped with the knowledge, skills, attitude and values to engage the world and others critically, which means developing a critical consciousness that allows them to take action on making their schools and communities more equitable and inclusive for all people, including LGBTTIQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, two-spirited, intersex, queer and questioning) people.”
Now that the school year is commencing and Bill 13 has gone into effect, ultra-religious parents are trying a new tack, inspired by a Greek Orthodox father from Hamilton. Appearing last Monday at a Queen’s Park press conference, Dr. Steve Tourloukis—with support from the proudly homophobic Parental Rights In Education Defense Fund, an anti-government group also freaked out about textbooks written by gay authors—is suing the school board for not warning him when his kids would be taught lessons that might deviate “from a Christian perspective.”
“I’m not an extremist, but I must ensure that my children abstain from certain activities that may include lessons which promote views contrary to our faith,” Tourloukis told the Toronto Star. The school board in question has suggested home-schooling, which would save his kids from the horrors of hearing any contrary views.
Despite Tourloukis’ protestations, his supporting organization, which warns of the state’s determination to “eradicate all traces of Judeo-Christian morality from society,” sounds pretty extreme, as do the form letters that his lawsuit has inspired.
These parents are trying to undermine the public-school curriculum for fear their children are being “indoctrinated.” According to the letter, written by PEACE (Public Education Advocates for Christian Equity), they’re concerned about “witchcraft, black magic, spirit guides, Satanism, wizardry, new age, channelling, astrology, horoscopes, psychic powers and other such practices,” which, presumably, means Halloween and the Boy Wizard Who Must Not Be Named. Then there’s the threat of “placing environmental issues/concerns above the value of Judeo-Christian principles and human life,” whatever that means.
There’s also the expected section about sex education—including both birth control and the absurd fears that schools are teaching their kids about “sadism, masochism, bestiality, fetish, bondage, etc.”—and that teachers might dare portray “homosexual/bisexual conduct and relationships and/or transgenderism as natural, healthy or acceptable.”
Education Minister Laurel Broten addressed the issue by noting “these competing rights can be complex issues, but one reason educators from around the world study our system is because our schools are safe places for everyone.” (Psst… the U.N. has actually criticized the public funding of Ontario’s Catholic School Boards, saying our province should either fund all religious schooling or none.)
During this first school week, another story broke involving the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) raising the rent on churches that use their facilities during the weekend. While it seems like a jerk move on the surface—what with the hikes being as much as 400 per cent—what really happened is that religious groups have been declassified as charitable organizations by the TDSB and therefore can no longer have their rent subsidized by a dead-broke school board facing a $110 million shortfall. And why should their rent be subsidized when that money could go to teaching kids?
On Wednesday, a group of angry pastors gathered outside the TDSB headquarters, where organizer Charles McVety, of the Canadian Christian College, complained, “This is not civil behaviour”—which was an ironic choice of words, since one of the dictionary definitions of civil is “of the ordinary life and affairs of citizens, as distinguished from military and ecclesiastical life and affairs.”
These religious reactionaries are worried that we’re reaching a tipping point towards making all public schools secular. Let’s hope so. The separation of church and state is a fundamental cornerstone of our society, and a state-funded school is simply no place for religion, beyond social studies and history textbooks or extracurricular student groups. So stop subsidizing religious-venue rentals, refuse to accommodate parents who won’t pony up for private or home school, and pull unfair public funding for a separate Catholic school system.
Jesus taught that everyone should be treated equally—let’s finally give that a go in our public schools.
CORRECTION, SEPTEMBER 19, 2012: The original version of this post incorrectly used the term Hindi as opposed to Hindu; the text has been updated.