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Pennings: You have nothing to fear from religious schools

Ray Pennings write in the Calgary Herald

When I was in school, merely spouting my opinions (of which I had many) did not get me good marks. Without data and supporting arguments for my opinions, they ended up being dismissed as tripe.

That standard is missing from public discourse today, at least with regard to religious schools in Canada.

Last week, another in a rash of anti-religious school stories came from Ontario, where a Toronto-area father won the right in court to send his son to a Catholic school while being exempted from all religious programs.

The father told the National Post the decision relieves the family of "this prolonged anguish we have been put through."

This week's story in that vein comes from Alberta, where the Calgary media seems surprised that a Christian school holds to a traditional view of marriage and an orthodox Christian view of hell.

In all such cases, the mere presence of a religiously based school, it seems, qualifies as a threat to civility and decency. Simple orthodox religious expression is treated as shocking intolerance.

In the Alberta case, Liberal MLA Kent Hehr, responding to the posting of an orthodox Christian statement of faith on a Christian school’s website, noted: "Fifteen years after the Supreme Court outlawed discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, it is unbelievable this is still happening."

But if our high school lessons about supporting arguments with data were observed, we would find Hehr's claim flies in the face of indisputable facts, as is so often the case with such criticism.

The first fact is the Civil Marriage Act passed by Parliament in 2005. The very preamble of the legislation relied on by Hehr notes that "it is not against the public interest to hold and publicly express diverse views on marriage."

Often overlooked is that the same clause protecting same-sex marriage from discrimination explicitly reinforces the charter's freedom of conscience and religion provision for "the expression of ... beliefs in respect of marriage as the union of a man and woman to the exclusion of all others based on that guaranteed freedom."

The second data point involves nothing less than the Supreme Court of Canada, which has rejected the argument that having a community covenant reflecting traditional views of marriage is in itself discriminatory.

In a landmark case, the British Columbia College of Teachers argued that because Trinity Western University had a community covenant, the school should not have the right to grant teacher’s licences. The Supreme Court sided with Trinity Western, noting that there was no evidence raised of discriminatory conduct.

The court noted that the "proper place to draw the line is generally between belief and conduct." (It's worth observing the same discredited argument is playing out again as Trinity Western tries to open a law school.)

In public skirmishes regarding religious schools, the focus is almost exclusively on the beliefs held. That is not to naively pretend that no occasion will ever be found in which a religious school engages in discriminatory conduct of one sort or the other—just as occurs in school systems that do not have religious statements of faith or community covenants. But to connect the pattern of that discrimination to the existence of a belief system rooted in a respect for every person as an image-bearer of God is a leap supported neither by law nor the evidence.

If critics of religious schools did their homework, they would know that, in general, religious schools do at least as good a job—and in many cases, a better job—of achieving the purposes of public education than do public schools.

A 2012 Cardus study, based on a representative survey of the Canadian population collected by Angus Reid, with an analysis conducted by the University of Notre Dame, points out that whether the measure is civic engagement, employment, or academic outcomes, non-government schools are achieving what we say we want public schools to achieve.

Religious schools are a misunderstood minority that tend to mind their own business and not worry about promoting themselves. That is hardly justification for media, legal and political elites to run roughshod over the clearly established charter rights of religious communities to organize and operate their own schools as an expression of religious freedom.

The glib headlines and faux outrage expressed by those critical of religious schools requires more careful argument than is being publicly offered. In fact, if those critics did the required study, they might be surprised whose charter rights are really being offended here.


© Copyright The Calgary Herald

Linked to Cardus' Education research project.

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