On February 3, the Toronto Star published an article which details a Brampton father's attempts to have his son exempted from his Catholic high school's religious courses and activities. The article has sparked a debate revolving around one central question: should students at Catholic schools who are not Catholic be allowed to exempt themselves from Catholic related courses and activities?
The answer is clearly yes. Under the Education Act the Catholic school board is obligated to provide this option to non-Catholic students, as Catholic schools are funded by all Ontario tax payers, not just Catholic ones.
Yet, instead of focusing on non-Catholic student's ability to be exempted from religious teachings in a Catholic school, discourse should focus on why the Catholic faith is exempt from the laws which apply to all other faiths and groups within the province.
As it stands, the Catholic faith is the only one that claims widespread funding from the general taxpayer which allows it to run its own separate and public school board. I am a product of the Catholic system of education, and I do not believe it deserves to continue in Ontario any longer.
From Grade 1 until Grade 12, I attended Catholic schools (Mother Theresa Catholic Elementary School and Saint Benedict Catholic Secondary School, both in Cambridge). There were some positive aspects of my time at these institutions. As the Brampton father, Oliver Erazo, stated in defence of his choice to send his non-Catholic kids to a Catholic school, the Catholic schools in my area appeared to be better than their public counterparts in terms of funding, facilities, and teaching. The schools I attended were also near my home. However, what were benefits to me at the time now play a large role in my disdain for the Catholic school board system.
Students should be able to attend the closest and best funded schools without having to deal with the religious propaganda that may come along with it. The religious aspects of the schools I attended seemed to be largely regulated to one religion course a year, as well as a few other required ceremonies. Yet, as Catholic school board spokesman Bruce Campbell stated in the Toronto Star article "You can't extricate the faith. It's woven throughout the fabric of the school." This deep embedding of faith has numerous consequences.
Primarily, attending a Catholic school implies that you will be subjected to claims like "We are not against homosexuals, we are against the homosexual act," which are justified by adherence to the Catholic faith. For queer students navigating through the challenging self-realization process of high school, this type of discriminatory babble is highly problematic and should not be forced upon Ontario taxpayers. One only needs to look to the school boards reaction to "gay-straight alliance" clubs as a further example of the attitude Catholic schools foster towards queer people.
Furthermore, attending a Catholic school as a non-Catholic implies that you will either need to sit down passively during the ceremonies of a faith you have no connection to, or go through a challenging legal process to exempt yourself. Catholic schools have a tendency of setting up rigid categories of those who adhere to their faith, and those who belong to one of the other "strange" religions. Not all students are equal in Catholic schools as those in the non-Catholic category are often stigmatized, even if not intentionally.
Finally, attending a Catholic school as a non-Catholic implies that your resources and time will likely be wasted on learning the tenets of a faith which you do not identify with. This is at the cost of other far more valuable subjects that are overlooked, such as math, science, or basic literature.
This is not to say that religious teachings have no place in the school system. The "World Religions" course I took in Grade 11, which can be found in public schools, was extremely useful in allowing me to better understand those around me. Ideally though, these sorts of courses would include Christianity, as opposed to teaching all of the "other" religions as mere objects with which to compare the supposedly "main" Christian tradition. Though students should learn about different religions, it needs to be from a secular viewpoint, unless, of course, the student's parents are willing to cough up the money required for a private school.
In a supposedly multicultural society, it is insulting for the government to fund and prefer the teachings of one specific group. The ever-changing makeup of Canadian society means that we are no longer a "Judeo-Christian" nation if we ever were, and so, we cannot give preference to a faith simply because we have a tradition of doing so. This practice needs to be justified, and no one can reasonably do so any longer. The time for the Catholic school board to be transformed into a secular institution is not in the future. It is not even now. The time was yesterday; this practice has gone on for far too long.