The issue of the practice of religion and religious education in Ontario schools has been a contentious issue throughout their history. The first Board of Education was established in Upper Canada (what became the Province of Ontario) in 1823. In 1824 the Board of Education was allotted funds to provide for the “moral and religious instruction of the more indigent and remote settlements.” (The school system of Ontario) While Christianity was the dominant religion in Ontario in the 19th century there were sectarian divisions, notably those between Protestant and Roman Catholic, but there was also division between the various Protestant denominations, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, for example. These divisions created strife and hard feelings regarding the provision of moral and religious instruction in Ontario schools. By the 1840s Egerton Ryerson (1803-1882), a Methodist clergyman and champion of public education, proposed “common schools” to educate children of all faiths. This was really quite forward thinking of Ryerson, but the divisions in Christendom at the time were so pronounced this was not possible.
A solution was found in which “common schools” were characterized as non-denominational Protestant schools based on a common Christianity while “separate schools” included a variety of denominational Protestant schools, “Coloured” schools and Roman Catholic schools. (Religion and Education in the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario) This was enshrined in law, in Section 93 of the Constitution Act (originally the British North America Act of 1867) which established Canada as a nation. Public and separate school boards were established in Ontario in 1867 and continue to operate in the present. Both public and separate school boards are funded by the provincial government and the Ontario Ministry of Education governs the curriculum. While there are separate Catholic school boards in Ontario, they operate under the auspices of the Ontario Ministry of Education. The Catholic Church does not have a constitutional, legal, or proprietary interest in the separate school boards.
The legal basis for Ontario schools is the Education Act R.S.O. 1990, CHAPTER E.2. In keeping with the mandate to provide moral and religious instruction, Regulation 262, s. 28(4) of the Education Act, 1980, remained in effect until 1990 with the following express purpose:
to provide pupils with a religious context, primarily Christian, in which to develop appropriate responses to life’s situations. It should not be assumed by a statement of this objective that other religions and even nonreligious interests are to be ignored. Rather it is hoped that moral, ethical and religious consensus which they hold in common with Christianity will be the primary content in any religious education program in the public schools. (Religion and Education in the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario)
This section of the Education Act was declared unconstitutional in 1990 when following a court challenge, Zylberberg v. Sudbury Board of Education (1988), based on Section 2 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in which the court ruled:
- The school may sponsor the study of religion, but may not sponsor the practice of religion.
- The school may expose students to all religious views, but may not impose any particular view.
- The school’s approach to religion is one of instruction, not one of indoctrination.
- The function of the school is to educate about all religions, not to convert to any one religion.
- The school’s approach is academic, not devotional.
- The school should study what all people believe, but should not teach a student what to believe.
- The school should strive for student awareness of all religions, but should not press for student acceptance of any one religion.
- The school should seek to inform the student about various beliefs, but should not seek to conform him or her to any one belief. (Emphasis included in the original). (as cited in Religion and Education in the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario)
Regulation 262, s. 28(4) of the Education Act, 1980 was promptly repealed and replaced with Policy Memorandum 112 which states:
This permanent policy and forthcoming amendments to Regulation 262 are to be understood within the context of the long-established vision of the public elementary and secondary schools as places where people of diverse backgrounds can learn and grow together. The public schools are open and accessible to all on an equal basis and founded upon the positive societal values which, in general, Canadians hold and regard as essential to the well-being of our society. These values transcend cultures and faiths, reinforce democratic rights and responsibilities and are founded on a fundamental belief in the worth of all persons. (as cited in Religion and Education in the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario)
Notwithstanding the repeal of Regulation 262, s. 28(4) of the Education Act, 1980, the Education Act, 1990 retains an element of the common Christian heritage in Ontario public schools. It does so in Section 264, Duties of Teacher listing the following requirement concerning religion and morals:
(c) to inculcate by precept and example respect for religion and the principles of Judaeo-Christian morality and the highest regard for truth, justice, loyalty, love of country, humanity, benevolence, sobriety, industry, frugality, purity, temperance and all other virtues;
The secularization of Ontario public schools, while separate school schools continued serving the Catholic population, did not go unnoticed and spurred two court challenges: Bal et al v Attorney General of Ontario (1994) and Adler v Ontario (1996). The plaintiffs based their court challenges on Section 2 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms alleging “that liberal secularism was coercive and exclusive just as Protestant Christianity had been before 1990.” (Religion and Education in the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario) These challenges failed, the ruling in Bal et al v Attorney General of Ontario (1994) states:
The impugned policy memorandum and regulations do not infringe freedom of religion contrary to s. 2(a) of the Charter. To found a breach of s. 2(a), there must be some state coercion that denies or limits the exercise of one’s religion. Secularism is not coercive, it is neutral. Policy Memorandum 112 does not constitute a form of government action which prefers one religion over another, nor does it represent majoritarian religious views. The policy seeks to abolish distinctions in the public school system which are based on religion. The central thrust of the applicants’ position was to bring the religious minority alternative schools under the aegis of the public school board to obtain financial support from that system. The decision of the Court of Appeal in Adler (1994) that there is no obligation on the government to fund minority religious schools is directly on point and determinative of the issue. (as cited in Religion and Education in the Provinces of Quebec and Ontario)
Data generated by Statistics Canada in the National Household Survey for 2011 indicate that Christianity remains the dominant religion in Ontario with Roman Catholics making up 31.4% of the population), the United Church of Canada (7.5%), and the Anglican Church (6.1%). People reporting no religious affiliation make up 23.1%. (as cited in Wikipedia) Given this reality, it is not surprising that the issue of the practice of religion and religious education in Ontario schools remains a contentious issue and will be for some time to come. The question of continued public funding for separate schools remains a thorny issue for secularists and people of other faiths. However, that the courts upheld the effort to disentangle the practice of religion from public schools in Ontario is a step in the right direction. The fact remains that the practice of religion and adherence to its dictates is entirely a personal matter. As such, it is incumbent believers that they tend to these matters on their own time and on their own dime.
Posted by Geoffrey