Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 13, 2000
A challenge to Catholic schools
Province argues for narrow understanding of Catholic education
By LELLA BLUMER
Special to the WCR
The Alberta government will tell the Supreme Court of Canada this week that separate schools in the province are guaranteed nothing more in the way of religious instruction than a voluntary half hour class at the end of the school day.
If the court agrees with that position, it could be extremely damaging to Catholic schools, says constitutional lawyer Kevin Feehan.
Feehan, who will represent the Alberta Catholic School Trustees' Association at the Supreme Court March 21-22, says ACSTA's position is that faith must permeate every aspect of a Catholic school.
That view is accepted by the province's recent education ministers, who have voiced their support for the value-based education provided by Catholic schools. But it contradicts the government's "factum" to the Supreme Court.
At first glance, the litigation initiated almost six years ago against the provincial government by the Public School Boards Association of Alberta has more to do with local school board autonomy and control over funding than with the nature of Catholic schools.
But in fact 34 pages of the government's factum are devoted to addressing separate school rights.
The factum states that section 17 of the Alberta Act, which guaranteed the rights of separate school supporters would be carried forward when Alberta joined Confederation, "provides no legal guarantees for the broad expectations of the Roman Catholic Church or the Catholic community."
It says that at the time Alberta became a province, "restrictions on religious instruction together with the tight controls on non-religious curriculum effectively prevented Catholic schools from satisfying Church laws or papal directives such as the 'permeation principle.'"
In addition, "it is clear that the 'denominational aspects' or 'denominational character' of separate schools were extremely limited."
Separate schools were in reality national schools, the factum states. They were secular during the day until 3:30 p.m. followed by non-compulsory religious instruction from 3:30 to 4 p.m."
Dr. Frank Peters, an expert witness who testified in the case, does not agree.
"The tight controls on secular curriculum and restrictions on the religious curriculum wouldn't at all restrict Catholic boards . . . and wouldn't prevent them from infusing the entire curriculum with the Catholic faith," Peters says.
The fact is that Catholic school boards had control over the staffing and administration of their schools, he adds, which allowed them to take a curriculum which on the surface was a secular one, and infuse it with the Catholic faith.
"There are certain things you can do with curriculum in terms of choices, but when you have people teaching these subjects that are committed to a certain world view or philosophy, that makes a huge difference."
Minister of Learning Dr. Lyle Oberg cannot comment on any case that is before the courts, according to a department spokesperson.
But statements made by Oberg and his predecessors seem to contradict the position taken in the government's factum.
Former Education Minister Halvar Jonson, in a 1995 letter to the editor of WCR, wrote, "All students choosing to attend Catholic separate schools accept that the education programs in that school are structured around Catholic values and principles and attend in that context."
Gary Mar made similar comments during his time as minister of education. And Oberg himself received a standing ovation for his comments regarding the nature of Catholic schools at the annual convention of the ACSTA last November.
That's a sharp contrast to the government's statement that in 1901 "there was little to distinguish separate schools from public schools."
If the court accepts the statements made in the government's factum, it could mean sweeping changes for Catholic schools, says Feehan.
ACSTA became involved in the litigation to prevent that from happening, he says.
This is the first time the Supreme Court will hear a case involving separate school rights in Alberta. But the courts have previously accepted the argument that there is a denominational right to permeation.
In a 1998 case initiated by the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association, an Ontario judge ruled that "Public and separate schools are based upon fundamentally different approaches to education. Public schools see the separation of secular from religious education as being advantageous.
"In contrast, separate school supporters believe that religious instruction and values should permeate and be integral to the teaching of secular subjects."
And last year the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that "The aim of Catholic education is not merely the transmission of knowledge and development of skills, but rather the integral formation of the whole person according to a vision of life that is revealed in the Catholic tradition."
That's something Peters can agree with.
"That's the essence of Catholic schools," he says. "Not that they teach religion, but that they are Catholic from opening to closing."