The Ontario Superior Court has ruled that student at a Catholic high school who is entitled to be excused from religious courses must also be excused, if they wish, from religious field trips and attending mass.
The decision is being hailed by critics of publicly funded Catholic schools, who believe it brings a secular option to a religious school system they feel is a costly duplication of education.
“Parents of Grade 9 to12 students living in a community where the nearest school, the least crowded school, or the best school is Catholic can now chose that school without fear that their children will be forced to take sectarian (religious) courses and programs of little interest to them,” said Leonard Baak, president of Oneschoolsystem.org, which opposes taxpayer funding of Catholic schools. Non-Catholics may attend Catholic high schools, but not elementary schools.
Grade 11 student Jonathan Erazo is not Roman Catholic, but has attended Brampton’s Notre Dame Catholic School because his father, Oliver Erazo, felt it was the best school close to their home. In Grade 10, Jonathan asked to be excused from religious classes, and after refusing at first, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board eventually agreed because Ontario’s Education Act excuses non-Catholic high school students from “any program or course of study in religious education” if their parent asks in writing.
But when Jonathan also wanted to be excused from having to attend five or six church services and a religious field trip each year, the school refused, arguing that all students are expected to take part in these for reasons of “supervision, safety and community reasons.”
Oliver Erazo decided to ask the courts for clarification, and in a recent decision, Ontario Superior Court Justice Ted Matlow agreed with Erazo.
“No Catholic school system that is required by law to admit non-Catholic students should have the right to require participation in such activities (liturgies and retreats)” wrote Ontario Superior Court Justice Ted Matlow in a 16-page decision. “In my view, the liturgies and retreats … have as their central purpose the provision of religious experiences and education to the students who attend them.”
Erazo’s lawyer, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, said his client is “very happy to have the dispute resolved and believes this is an important decision,” considering other parents have fought the same issue in other parts of the province. “Boards now clearly know their obligations (for exempting non-Catholic students from religious courses) under the Education Act.”
He said Jonathan would like to work in the school library or office during mass or religious retreats, and hopes the school will agree. The Dufferin-Peel board has 15 days to decide whether to appeal, so “will reserve comment at this time,” said board spokesperson Bruce Campbell.