Monday, 14 April 2014

Should non-Catholic students be taught religion in Catholic  schools?                            

In September 1949, my brother and I were sent to a Catholic residential school in Vancouver by our mother. It is called, Vancouver College. It is no longer a residential school but is now a regular Catholic day school. My brother and I  were to be in that school as residents from September of that school year until the end of June in 1950. We were two of only four boys who were Protestants in that school then. 

All the time that the four of us boys were there in that school, we never had to go to Mass in the mornings or participate in any religious instruction. When there was a special mass said during the day, we four boys were sent to the library. Of course, at night when everyone in the dormitories was saying the common Catholic prayer out loud and in unison, I recited the same prayer simply because everyone in the dorm was doing it.

There was an interesting case that was dealt with by the courts in Canada that considered the issue as to whether or not the Catholic School Board in Brampton, Ontario could insist that non-Catholic students attending a Catholic School in that city be required to attend all religious functions in that school.

Notre Dame School schedules Roman Catholic mass and liturgies for five or six times throughout each school year. These liturgies last approximately 60 to 90 minutes each. Students are encouraged to actively participate in communion and prayer and required to respectfully observe the service by standing and sitting at various times as dictated throughout the public worship.
A man enrolled both of sons at the Notre Dame Catholic School in Brampton because it is the best school in the district and because he was unable to send them to public schools outside of the district. Notre Dame was also closer to my family’s home.                                                                                                                       
I should add that one of my daughters who is a Protestant like the rest of my family asked my wife and me if she could attend a Catholic High School that was close to our home. I was well aware that the Catholic School had a superior rating as one of the best schools in our region so we agreed. She didn’t have to go to Mass or participate in any other Catholic religious events at that school.                                                                                                                                   

The Notre Dame School in Brampton provides courses and programs in religious education specific to the Roman Catholicism faith. Their classes form a part of the curriculum in the same manner as math or geography. Notre Dame also provides liturgies and religious retreats for students. Liturgies are akin to attendance at church and take place in the school auditorium. Religious retreats are religious-based field trips that, at times, have involved a trip to a Roman Catholic Church at which a priest has led students in prayer.                   
Both boys regularly attended the religious programs and courses in grade 9. However, after their grade 9 years, it was decided by them and their dad that they would take different classes in place of religion. 

Their father asked the school to exempt one of the boys from further religious studies in grade 10, but the school refused his request. 


For a period of over six months, the school refused to grant the boy any exemption without providing written reasons for this decision. The school finally granted the exemption to the religion classes only after it received a letter from the family’s lawyer. 
Thereafter, the father asked the school to exempt his son from programs in religious education, including liturgies and religious retreats. His other son, being eighteen, requested the same exemption for himself.                                     
The school stubbornly still maintained that both boys were required to attend programs in religious education, including liturgies. The school arranges to have the liturgy at different times over a period of two days in order to accommodate the size of the student population. Religious retreats are scheduled multiple times every year, however students are required to attend only one such retreat. The retreats have, at times, included a full day field trip to a Roman Catholic Church at which a priest has led the students in prayer.                                            
In the Education Act of Ontario, section 11 of the Act states;  
On written application, a Roman Catholic board shall exempt a person who is qualified to be a resident pupil in respect of a secondary school operated by a public board from programs and courses of study in religious education.
Section 13 of the Act states; 
In addition to the exemptions provided for in subsection (11), no person who is qualified to be a resident pupil in respect of a secondary school operated by a public board who attends a secondary school operated by a Roman Catholic board shall be required to take part in any program or course of study in religious education on written application to the Board of, (a) the parent or guardian of the person;  (b) in the case of a person who is 16 or 17 years old who has withdrawn from parental control, the person himself or herself;  (c) in the case of a person who is 18 years old or older, the person himself or herself.
It seems odd that the Notre Dame school chose to ignore the written request of the father of the younger boy and the request of the older boy considering the fact that the Act says that they must adhere to the requests. Why were those people who operate the school so stubborn as to disobey the Act.     
The principal reasons for the school’s refusal to recognize the request of the younger boy’s father and the request of the older boy for an exemption for both boys from taking part in the religious programs was given in a letter from the principal of Notre Dame, to the boy’s father that was  dated June 25, 2012. In the letter, the principal said;    
“During our meeting (with the father) on May 2, 2012, we explained that the policy of the Dufferin Peel Catholic District School Board is that all students enrolled in our high schools will take a religion course and participate in a retreat each year from grade 9 through grade 12. This policy is outlined in the letter that is included with the registration package (that is) titled “Religious Information/New Registrants (Secondary Religious  Expectations.” unquote

The principal also wrote;

1. All students will enroll in a Religion course in each of the four years. All Religion courses are approved by the appropriate Catholic authority. The Government of Ontario recognizes that Religion credits count towards a secondary graduation diploma. 
2.      All students will participate in an annual retreat for the first four years that they are in a secondary school. The retreat normally takes place during the school day at a site off school property. The school chaplain organizes the annual retreat based on spiritual themes appropriate for adolescents.
3.    All students will participate in the prayer and the liturgical life of the school. Catholic students are expected to participate fully as mandated by their sacramental Baptism. Non-Catholic students are expected to participate to the extent that they can.  It is not the intention of the Dufferin-Peel Catholic School Board to proselytize, however, for supervision, safety and community reasons, the entire school participates in all religious events that occur during the school year. At a minimum, non-Catholic students will attend and maintain respectful silence at all religious observances. All students are encouraged to get involved.
4.    Students requesting accommodation must present written notice from their parents/guardians specifying their accommodation needs relating to religious observances, including the holy days on which they will be absent from school. This notice should be made in advance (preferably at the beginning of each school year) to ensure that scheduling of major evaluations, such as tests, assignments or examinations, takes the religious observances into consideration.
5.     The Catholic District School Boards of Ontario follow approved provincial curriculum (sic). Given the distinctiveness of Catholic schools, the Government of Ontario recognizes parallel curricula for our system based on Catholic course profiles. All courses in all subject areas, in a Catholic secondary school, are taught from a Catholic perspective.

Let me refer you to part 4 in which the author of the letter used the words ‘preferably at the beginning of the school year’. The word ‘preferably’ is not a mandatory word. If gives parents and older students the option of picking the time in the school year as to when they may decide to legally opt out of the religious programs offered by the school.  The school ignored the true meaning of the word “preferred” when it refused to grant the request of the father of the younger boy and the request of the older boy.  

In a letter written by Ralph Borelli, the Associate Director of Instructional Services read in part as follows:  
“Based on the provision found in the Education Act, the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board will comply with your request to have Jonathan exempt from taking courses in religious education, but there will not be any alteration in the religious and moral education that infuses the remainder of his timetable and Notre Dame Catholic School observances.”  unquote  
Now I ask you, does this make any sense? If the Education Act clearly states that a school must adhere to a request of the father of the younger boy and the request of the older boy to be exempted from any form of religious teachings once the requests are received by the school in writing, why then did Mr. Borelli insist that their requests be ignored and that the religious teachings would still be given to the boys for the rest of the school year?  
Now the boy’s father didn’t object to the boys being present during Bible readings or other prayers at the start of the school day and that there may well be references to religious content during classes, such as reading the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish as a matter of Spanish education. That makes a lot of sense. Obviously, if the boys had to enter the classrooms after the initial bible reading, they would stand out like boils to their classmates. 

The boy’s father however objected to two specific activities that he believed properly fell within the meaning of “religious education” as referenced in the Education Act. First, there was the matter of religious retreats, and second, there was the matter of mandatory attendance at mass. He didn’t want them participating in those events for the rest of the school year. 

The school’s lawyers wrote a letter to the boy’s father’s lawyer in which it stated in part; 

Your client and ours have agreed that the student would remain at home during the time of the retreats. As a result, we assume that this is no longer an issue. (I don’t know what boy he was referring to.)  The Board and the school expect all students to remain present for all parts of the school activities included at various times throughout the year, whether or not they have a Catholic aspect. (I wish lawyers would be for clearer when they make statements. When he used the word “Catholic aspect” was he using the word ‘aspect’ to mean the ‘belief of the boys’ or the ‘program of the school’?)  He also said in his letter;  

Our client (the Board) made its expectations clear at the time of registration that all members of the school community are expected to participate in the life of the (school) community. The exemption required by statute will be honoured, but all students including your client’s child will be required to join the other members of the community in school activities.” unquote 

By the definition in the Education Act a “school” is a community.  

Was he telling the boy’s father that his sons must join the other students in all religious activities or just non-religious activities?  Again, it would have been more helpful if the lawyer was much clearer in his statement. 

The father of the younger son who was still a minor took the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board to the Divisional Court of the Superior Court in Brampton for a court decision.  The Divisional Court hears matters where administrative bodies make decisions that are appealed. 

The lawyers for the School Board sent to the court and the lawyer representing the father of the younger boy, a factum (written statement of the facts of the case) in which it stated in part; 

“There is no issue that upon written application and satisfaction of stated criteria set out in the Act, an exemption could be granted to Jonathan from taking “programs and courses of study in religious education” at Notre Dame.  
“There is no issue that Jonathan was granted an exemption from taking the otherwise mandatory grade 10 religious education course during the September 2012-June 2013 academic year.                                                          
“The only issues relate to how the applicants want the word “program” to be interpreted for them and for their purposes.” unquote 
This appeal reflected one of the inevitable sources of the tension that can arise in a secondary school environment where, as in this case. Legislation provides that students who, for any reason, do not wish to take instruction in the Catholic religion are nevertheless entitled to attend a Catholic school. The Legislature has responded to this kind of situation by providing for various exemptions for students who fall within this group. Jonathan was one of them.

He had already received an exemption from taking “courses of study in religious education” pursuant to section 42 (11) but had thus far been unsuccessful in obtaining recognition for a further exemption from taking part in any “program or course of study in religious education” pursuant to section 42 (13)

The exemption sought in this case was from taking part in “liturgies” and “retreats” and the parties had focused on whether or not those activities qualified as “programs” within the language of section 42(13)

The evidence of what went on during liturgies and retreats, the frequency with which they were held and some other details were what was in some conflict. However, what was not in dispute was that both activities included a substantial component of ritual and prayer that was led by Catholic priests. 

In my view, the planned liturgies and retreats that were the subject of this appeal may correctly be viewed, either separately or together, as falling within the definition described by the Board’s lawyers. They were a series of events, somewhat different from each other in some ways, but having as their central purpose the provision of religious experiences and education to the students who attended them. The various hypothetical examples of “programs” referred to by the lawyers for the Board did not advance their arguments that the planned series of liturgies and retreats were excluded from the definition. The definition proposed by the Board was unduly narrow and did not take into account the context in which the liturgies and retreats that took place.  

The evident purpose of section 42(13) is to give relief to students who may respect many Catholic principles and observances but do not wish to participate in Catholic, or perhaps any other form of worship, even at a minimal level of participation. For some students, it might well require a betrayal of their own religious beliefs and principles. No Catholic school system that is required by law to admit non-Catholic students should have the right to require such participation from their students and despite the wording of section 42(13), the school and the School Board ignored the tenets of the legislation enunciated in section 42(13). 

The judge in the Divisional Court ruled; 

“It follows that the applicants were entitled, according to law, to the exemption claimed for Jonathan upon making the requisite application even without the acquiescence of the respondent. I conclude with the observation that my determination that liturgies and retreats constitute “programs” does not necessarily exclude the alternative that they are also part of, or ancillary to, the “courses in religious education” from which Jonathan has already received an exemption and that no further exemption was required to achieve the applicants’ objective. ‘ unquote 
Now one would think that the Board would accept the court’s ruling considering that it was reasonable and just but alas, the Board’s stubbornness raised its ugly head not unlike a shark leaping from the surface of the sea to pounce on an unsuspecting swimmer. They filed an appeal to the Ontario Court of Appeal. The panel of three members of the Ontario Court of Appeal that heard the Board’s appeal ruled that the youngest teen attending the Catholic school was under no obligation whatsoever to attend any religious function that the school deemed mandatory. The older boy didn’t have to attend such functions as he was old enough to make his own decision not to attend those functions and the school recognized his right. 

 This issue really comes down to a basic premise. Can a school that accepts public funds expect that they have the right to force Catholicism down the throats of its non-Catholic students?  

 Some religions including Christianity welcome converts and they preach tolerance toward other faiths. However in virtually every religion, there is a fundamental distinction between those who accept certain precepts as being true and those who do not. In this instant case, the Catholic School Board did not and they stubbornly tramped onwards through the quicksand believing that like Christ, they would walk on it just as Christ walked on the Sea of Galilee. 

 Will they now appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada? If they do, their stubbornness will leap even higher than before and in my opinion, they will come crashing down in a big splash of defeat. 

To argue with a stubborn man who has renounced the use and authority of reason and logic and whose philosophy consists in holding both in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert a determined atheist by scripture alone.

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