Catholic school students 'forced' to study their faith, says Globe & Mail

"Catholic schools force students to study religion despite court order," says the Toronto Globe and Mail.

That's not an op-ed. It's the headline of a hard-news article by education reporter Kate Hammer that gives ample voice to disgruntled parents of students at Ontario Catholic schools while failing to solicit comment from those on the other side of the issue.

The story begins:

Catholic schools in Ontario are requiring students to take religious courses despite a recent court decision that ruled they can’t be forced to attend.
In multiple correspondences reviewed by The Globe and Mail, Catholic school board officials from across the province have denied requests from Catholic high-school students that they be excused from religious studies on the basis that their parents are Catholic school ratepayers.

Yes, I know that line about "Catholic school ratepayers" is confusing to an outsider. It has to do with the fact that Catholic schools in Ontario are fully funded by the state. Bear with me and all will be made clear.

First, let's look at the "multiple correspondences" that the article cites to back up the lead. It seems that at least three parents provided the Globe and Mail  with the letters they received denying their requests to exempt their children from religion courses. The article gives no indication of how the newspaper came to receive correspondence from all three at the same time. Did they put out a call for such information? Was the story given to them by some sort of advocacy organization?

The article lets the parents tell their stories:

Ms. Borgstadt said she has been told by the school principal that [her son] Cameron isn’t entitled to an exemption. “I feel that my son has been cheated,” she said. “It’s 70 minutes every day for an entire semester. Nobody needs that much religion, particularly when you’re talking about a child who’s struggling in the school.” ...
[Marissa Dias's] application for an exemption was denied. ... “I’m angry,” [her father] Mr. Dias said. “They are trying to pull the wool over my eyes.”

Ricardo Barbo spent most of last school year trying to win an exemption for his son so he could focus on getting top marks for his university applications. ...

Mr. Barbo’s son didn’t get into his top-choice university program, and his father regrets that he wasn’t able to spend the time studying in the library instead.

“It had nothing to do with religion, nothing against the courses or what was being taught,” Mr. Barbo said. “It was simply about my son’s dedication and getting into his goal university.”

So, here we have direct quotes from three fathers of high-schoolers, all of them dissatisfied with their treatment by the Catholic school boards.  Does the Globe and Mail present any direct quotes from the Catholic school boards in response to the parents' complaints?

None. Zip. Nada. The closest the paper comes to offering the school boards' side is when it paraphrases an e-mail from a board official to Dias. Even then, it is not a direct quote, and there is no indication it asked anyone on the boards to comment. So there is a clear imbalance in sourcing.

Beyond the sourcing imbalance, there is a hole in the story -- perhaps not so much a religion ghost as a simple, plain, old-fashioned hole.

To better understand what is going on, it helps to know something about the complex world of Canadian Catholic-school funding. 

One aspect of the issue concerns the court case mentioned in the story's headline. It's not explained fully in Hammer's piece,  but an earlier story by Globe and Mail education reporter Caroline Alphonso spelled it out:

A panel of three judges recently ruled that non-Catholic high-school students who previously attended a secular elementary school have the option of being exempted from attending mass and retreats. ...
Students in Ontario are not allowed to attend Catholic elementary schools unless they are of that particular faith. But an open-access policy at the high-school level means everyone has the right to attend any publicly-funded secondary school, including Catholic ones, regardless of religious belief.

Another aspect has to do (at least peripherally) with property taxes. It's here that things can get confusing for an outsider; again, stay with me -- there's a reward for persistence.

The article by Hammer explains:

Property owners are asked to designate themselves as supporters of either Catholic or public schools. While this affected school-board funding in the past, it no longer does – as of 1997, school boards have been funded solely by the province.

So, part of the issue, according to Hammer's article, is that the schools are claiming that, because the parents have identified themselves on their property taxes as "Catholic school ratepayers," they have committed themselves to a Catholic education for their children -- with all that entails. That seems to be what a Catholic school-board official asserts in the e-mail that Hammer paraphrases:

Linda Staudt, director of the London Catholic District School Board, pointed to a section of the Ontario Education Act that says students eligible to attend a public high school cannot be required to take part in religious programs. That group, she wrote in an e-mail, does not include Catholic students whose parents designate themselves Catholic school supporters on property tax statements.

But is that in fact the only reason the Catholic school boards are "forcing" religion classes upon students over their parents' protests? Or is there more to it? 

An article by Jane Sims in the London Free Press features one of the same parents as Hammer's Globe and Mail piece, but goes beyond the Globe and Mail to include a comment from a school-board official:

LONDON, Ont. ─ With three weeks before the school year begins, Sam Dias is still trying to get his daughter a pass from a Catholic high school's mandatory religion class.
The family is not religious. His daughter, who is starting Grade 9, isn't interested in taking the classes and would rather take another credit.
But even though a court decision allows some exemptions, it looks like the chances Dias' daughter can get an exemption from taking the religion course in London, Ont., aren’t good. ...
Dias said he knows of other families who have been able to get the exemption and wants the same for his daughter.
But the problem is she is a graduate of a Catholic elementary school, which in London, means no pass.
Bill Hall, chairperson of the London board, said the rules in the Education Act are clear. "If we have Catholic students coming from our elementary schools into our secondary schools, then they do take the religion courses and we don't give exemptions for that."
The choice to allow students to be exempt from taking religion courses is made after consulting superintendents and principals.
But Hall said those exemptions are extremely rare and are usually for public school supporters who have children entering the Catholic secondary school system for the first time.
"If you are coming to us from a Catholic elementary school, we would expect you would be taking the religion courses in secondary (school), and there wouldn't be any reason for an exemption," he said.

Now it begins to make sense. The primary reason that parents are being denied exemptions from religion classes for their high-schoolers is not because of some arcane bureaucratic rule having to do with property taxes. It is because the Catholic schools, at a time when the law forces them to exempt high-schoolers coming from non-Catholic elementary schools from religion-related requirements, are trying to hold on to the last vestige of their Catholic identity. If they can't teach the Catholic faith to those who have not already attended Catholic schools, they want to at least continue to teach it to those who have.

I don't think one has to be Catholic to appreciate that an integral part of Catholic schools' mission is to pass on their faith. Granted, coming at this from an American perspective, there may be aspects of the issue that I'm failing to grasp. Perhaps the very concept of a faith-based school as a voluntary association becomes muddled when such schools are state-funded. Even so, it seems to me that the Globe and Mail and the London Free Press are omitting needed context on the role of Catholic religious education in the mission of Catholic schools. A GetReligion ruler-slap to both of them.

Image of Notre Dame Cathedral Basilica of Ottawa via Shutterstock.




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