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Our kids deserve equality

There is clearly a continuing public demand for Catholic schools and the same option should be available to other faiths

The Toronto Star, Opinion, Jan. 31, 2005


With the recent flip-flop of the Quebec government on religious school funding, it's time to reconsider the issue in Ontario. Minority religious schools should be funded in Ontario not only to end the discrimination between Catholics and other religious groups, but also because our schools provide a necessary public service that public schools cannot offer.

In Western Canada and Quebec, faith-based schools receive substantial government funding.

By contrast, Ontario fully funds the Catholic school system, while providing no direct funding to the 2 per cent of children attending non-Catholic religious schools.

In 1999 , the U.N. Human Rights Committee found this policy in violation of Canada's international obligations.

It ruled that Ontario must end its discriminatory policy. The status quo puts Ontario at odds with modern democratic norms and all other Western societies.

But should any religious education be government funded?

Some have argued that funding the Catholic school system is a "relic" from the past that should end.

However, almost one-third of Ontario parents send their children to Catholic schools, where the general studies curriculum is enriched with the spiritual and cultural dimensions that are, for many, an integral part of a quality education.

There is clearly a continuing public demand for Catholic schools.

The same option should be available to other faiths.

Most of our parents are middle- or lower-income earners who endure financial hardships to educate their children in accordance with their conscience. For many, tuition is the largest item in the family budget, in addition to their taxes which fund public and Catholic education.

Why do they sacrifice so much, if public schools are freely available to them?

The Ontario courts have determined that public schools can teach about religion, but cannot encourage the observance of a particular faith. What this means is public schools are not an option for parents who wish their children to remain true to their faith.

The Supreme Court acknowledged in a 1996 decision that "the Jewish community's survival as an identifiable and practising religious community depends upon broad access for Jewish children to Jewish day schools."

Other faiths are no different.

Genuine tolerance and acceptance of diversity in our society requires the government to provide equal access to education for all Ontarians.

The absence of funding effectively denies many religious Ontarians the ability to educate children in their faiths.

Consider the disastrous consequences to aboriginal children who lost their identity and creed at residential schools.

The suggestion that funding minority religious schools will "fragment" the public school system is unfounded. Most democracies, including many in Europe and across Canada, fund religious schools with no adverse impact on public schools.

In every case, most parents choose to send their children to the public school systems, while the basic needs of religious and cultural minorities are also met.

Ontario would be stronger and public schools better off if religious schools were funded.

As a matter of justice and fairness, Ontario should join the many other jurisdictions in extending equality of educational opportunity to all children.

Metropolitan Archbishop Sotirios belongs to the Multi-faith Coalition for Equal Funding of Religious Schools; Aaron Blumenfeld, represents the Ontario Association of Jewish Day Schools; M.D. Khalid is an executive member of the Islamic Society of North America Canada; Ripsodhak Singh Grewal is a member of the Khalsa Community (Sikh) School.