Credit: N. Maxwell Lander
Ontario Catholic students fighting for equality in schools are closely watching a constitutional challenge against the publicly funded Catholic education system that was recently launched by a Toronto woman.
Reva Landau, a non-practising lawyer, filed the case with the attorney general in Ontario’s Superior Court of Justice in December. She says the Supreme Court should take another look at its previous decisions.
“So the other party [Quebec] has withdrawn from the great historic compromise,” says Landau. “The argument to continue funding the separate school board is gone. I think this should be reconsidered because it is so out of tune with the way things are today. The Charter of Rights says there should be no discrimination.”
Landau says giving aid to one religious institution that is not equally available to others violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
She says there is also “appalling” inequity and “blatant discrimination” in the Catholic board’s hiring practices for teachers.
“Catholic teachers in Ontario can get a job in both school systems, Catholic and secular. Non-Catholic teachers can only apply for jobs in the secular school system,” she says. “A non-Catholic teacher can apply for a job in the Catholic system, but they have a legal right to discriminate. About 30 percent of the teaching jobs in Ontario are in the Catholic separate system; that’s a huge burden for teachers to bear.”
Schools are forcing a religion onto teachers, she says, or forcing teachers to lie.
Furthermore, Landau adds that gay-straight alliances (GSAs), or any student group that supports queer youth, are banned in Ontario Catholic schools.
“The Catholic school boards’ opposition to gay-straight alliances is being upheld with public money,” she says. “Now they can have a group, but not call it a gay-straight alliance. It’s like Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Leanne Iskander, who founded Catholic Students for GSAs (CS4GSA), continues to look at legal options of her own.
Groups like CS4GSA, Queer Ontario and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) may decide to file a legal brief in support as a “friend of the court,” Landau suggests. They would not carry the case, but would provide valuable information.
Equality program director Noa Mendelsohn Aviv says the CCLA is taking a close look at the case and may decide to get involved.
Landau says she’s been investigating the possibility of a challenge since former PC leader John Tory raised the issue of faith-based school funding in 2007. “[Tory] said if Catholics get it, everyone should get it.”
Education Minister Laurel Broten did not respond to Xtra‘s requests for comment.
“The more I investigated this issue, the more it seemed outrageous to me,” Landau says. She came to the conclusion that the government should create and fund only one secular school board that welcomes everyone.
The last similar challenge was Adler v Ontario in 1996, which sought equivalent funding for all faiths. The lawyer argued that it is unconstitutional to fund one religious school system to the exclusion of all other religions.
“There is no reason why this can’t be done,” Landau says. “The government could do it if they wanted to, but they obviously don’t want to. They are afraid they’ll get thrown out of office, I assume.”
Legal experts agree that Catholic school boards’ denominational rights, which are guaranteed by Section 93 of the Constitutional Act, do not justify discrimination and can most definitely be challenged.
Landau says she is taking a new legal approach in arguing that the Charter of Rights applies to everything beyond 1867, “so the government has no right to give Catholic schools any money beyond what they were entitled to in 1867, unless they want to start funding all religious schools, and I certainly don’t want that.”
Funding was extended to Catholic schools by former premier Bill Davis in 1985. It’s unlikely the Catholic school system could continue to operate on 1867 funding levels.
“Whether they could or couldn’t operate at that level [of public funding] is up to them,” says Landau. “All other religious schools in Ontario operate with no funding.”
Charter Challenge_ Reva Landau