Ontario Catholic high schools shouldn’t press students to study religion: settlement

Ontario’s Catholic high schools should not press students to attend religious studies courses and ceremonies, according to a settlement reached in response to a human rights tribunal complaint.

The complaint by a former high-school student alleged that the school district and the trustees’ association engaged in “a continuous pattern of discrimination and reprisal in connection with her request for an exemption from religious courses and activities” in her last year of school. The settlement reached outside of a tribunal hearing, a copy of which was provided to The Globe and Mail, means that Catholic school districts will be encouraged to revisit their policies so students eligible for exemptions will not be forced to provide reasons or have to meet with school board officials as “a precondition to the application being recognized and accepted.”

The settlement comes as taxpayer support of the Catholic school system has come under the microscope, especially because students don’t have to be Catholic to attend the separate school system in several districts. A small group, One Public Education Now (OPEN), is planning a legal challenge to public funding for separate schools.

Several provinces, including Alberta and Saskatchewan, publicly fund Catholic schools. A Saskatchewan judge recently ruled that non-Catholic students should not receive public funding to attend separate schools. The decision, released in April, said the province violated equality rights set out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and its obligation of religious neutrality by funding non-minority faith students who enroll in Catholic schools. The province is appealing the ruling.

In Ontario, where funding from the province is on a per pupil basis and enrolment is declining, many Catholic school districts have opened up enrolment to non-Catholics at both the elementary and high-school levels. Parents opt to send their children to Catholic schools for a variety of reasons, including perceived quality and distance from their home.

Students attending Catholic high schools are asked to take one religion credit each year of their high school career. But a right to exemption from religious studies was inserted in the Education Act in the late 1980s, when public funding was extended to Catholic secondary schools and enrolment was opened to non-Catholic students.

Some Catholic schools found loopholes by either making it more difficult or outright denying exemptions, earlier complaints to school boards indicate. This is despite an Ontario court ruling in 2014 that students cannot be forced to participate in religious programs. A Brampton father fought the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board to exempt his son from his high school’s religious programs.

The human rights complaint was launched last year by Claudia Sorgini, currently a university student, who was told she would be excluded from a variety of non-academic activities and assemblies, including an honour-roll breakfast, when she requested an exemption from her school, St. Theresa’s Catholic High School in Midland, Ont.

After some wrangling with the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, north of Toronto, Ms. Sorgini was granted the exemption and not barred from non-academic events.

Ms. Sorigini and her parents are not Catholic. She chose to attend St. Theresa’s rather than the secular high school because it offered a more extensive selection of physics courses and a chance to become involved in music productions. She graduated with a 98-per-cent average.

Ms. Sorgini said in her complaint that throughout her last year of high school, administrators treated her differently than other students in regards to her schooling and scholarships.

“She was a stellar student at St. Theresa’s, but when she asked for an exemption from religious courses and programs, things became very unpleasant for her at school. She didn’t want that to happen to any other student – at St. Theresa’s or any Catholic school in Ontario,” Paul Champ, her lawyer, said.

The remedy stated the school board would prepare new procedures that would include treating students with exemptions with “dignity and respect.” The settlement also requires the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association to communicate the remedy to every Catholic school board in the province with a recommendation that other boards similarly change their policies.

Brian Beal, director of education for the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, said the settlement formalizes the school district’s procedures and practices. “Our focus continues to be providing students with an inclusive, accepting and welcoming environment in which to learn,” Mr. Beal said in an e-mail statement.

Patrick Daly, president of OCSTA, said the association can’t compel its members to act, but will share the remedy so they can “review it in light of their own current practices and policies.”

Mr. Champ said he found evidence that OCSTA was encouraging separate school boards to create barriers for students asking for an exemption.

“Pressure to attend religious courses in a publicly-funded school amounts to religious discrimination under the Human Rights Code,” said Mr. Champ. “Hopefully, Ms. Sorgini’s case will lead to all Catholic school boards adopting new exemption policies that will end harassment of students and families who request an exemption.”