After a series of exchanges between a Catholic-school parent and the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District in Ontario, the Ontario Superior Court ruled in April that Notre Dame School in Brampton must exempt an eleventh-grade student from taking part in compulsory liturgies and retreats, according to The Toronto Star.
The student’s father, Oliver Erazo, had reportedly requested and was eventually granted exemption from religion classes for his son. He called on Ontario’s Education Act, which stipulates that students must be exempt from “any program or course of study in religious education” if their parents request it in writing. Erazo then pressed for his son’s exemption from liturgies and retreats as well, arguing that these activities fall under the category of “programs,” but the school refused.
When the case was brought to court, the school board reportedly contended that “Prayers, retreats, Mass and other liturgical events are not programs but rather are the fabric of what and how Catholicity is celebrated.” It cited the Constitution Act, 1867, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Education Act, and the Ontario Human Rights Code as protecting “the right to operate Catholic schools and all that entails.” The board reportedly insisted that its expectation was that all students would participate in religion classes, annual retreats, and the prayer and liturgical life of the school that was made clear to all parents and students in their registration packages. It furthermore affirmed that “The Board recognizes that any form of social or cultural discrimination is incompatible with Catholic moral principles and is in violation of the Ontario Human Rights Code,” according to the report. Students need not be Catholic to attend religion classes, Masses, and retreats.
With those arguments presented the court ruled against the school board, saying, “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.”
In Ontario, Catholic schools are publicly funded—property owners may choose whether their tax money will support public or Catholic schools—and critics of this dual school system are hailing the decision as a triumph. “Parents of Grade 9 to 12 students living in a community where the nearest school, the least crowded school, or the best school is Catholic, can now choose that school without fear that their children will be forced to take sectarian (religious) courses and programs of little interest to them,” said Leonard Blaak, the president of Oneschoolsystem.org, in the Star article. Erazo’s lawyer reportedly said that his client “believes this is an important decision … Boards now clearly know their obligations (for exempting non-Catholic students from religious courses) under the Education Act.”
In an article by the National Post, Justin Trottier, spokesman for the atheist Centre for Inquiry said, “I think [Catholics are] witnessing the dilution of the Catholic identity within their own school system.”
The Catholic schools themselves continue to defend the practices which they hold to be part of the “fabric” of their identity. According to The Globe and Mail, they have interpreted the Erazo decision as applying only to public school ratepayers, and continue to deny exemptions—which are being requested in large numbers—to children of Catholic school supporters.
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