Pulling public money from Saskatchewan's faith-based schools would be wrong and misguided

Following allegations of abuse at a Saskatchewan faith-based school, many have called for public funding of Qualified Independent Schools to be halted. However, these schools have a right to exist and a certain latitude to teach in accordance to their religious beliefs, writes Fife Ogunde.  (Jason Warick/CBC - image credit)
Following allegations of abuse at a Saskatchewan faith-based school, many have called for public funding of Qualified Independent Schools to be halted. However, these schools have a right to exist and a certain latitude to teach in accordance to their religious beliefs, writes Fife Ogunde. (Jason Warick/CBC - image credit)

This opinion piece is written by Fife Ogunde, a research specialist and commentator based in Saskatchewan who holds a master's degree in human rights law and a doctorate degree in law. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

With news stories covering allegations of abuse and mistreatment at faith-based schools in Saskatchewan, there has been a misguided push in some quarters to withdraw public funding for these schools.

I am a Christian parent of two children and am highly concerned about the future of their education, particularly in the context of my beliefs. Although my children are still young, my preference would be for them to attend a faith-based school in the future.

While I am skeptical of certain aspects of the way qualified independent schools (QISs), in particular faith-based schools, function in practice, their existence symbolizes a freedom of choice that I support.

The idea to tie public funding for these schools to compliance with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, as the Official Opposition has suggested, not only shows a limited understanding of the code, but is a disservice to democratic ideals.


Rights and freedoms extend to education

The human rights code aims to promote recognition of the "equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family." One such right is the right to freedom of religious association, teaching, practice and worship.

Section 13 of the code, which deals with education, guarantees the right to education for every person in any institution without discrimination. At the same time, it recognizes and provides educational institutions with the right to follow restrictive enrolment policies on the basis of sex, creed, religion or disability if operated by a religious order or society.

This means that a Christian school, for example, can exclude people from enrolment if they follow practices incompatible with the Bible.

A Bible college firing a residential adviser on the basis of their sexuality, as unpleasant as it sounds, is permissible under the code. Restricting enrolment or employment to people of a certain religious creed is also permitted under the code.

This, in any case, is my interpretation of the revered code. To date, there does not appear to have been a case in Saskatchewan that has tested this interpretation or the practice of restrictive enrolment and/or employment under the code.

Under the Education Act, these schools are allowed to operate. They're given a level of flexibility and freedom with respect to content and style of education, as long as they comply with minimum standards.

A Saskatchewan textbook that teaches the coexistence of humans with dinosaurs may be ridiculous, scientifically dubious, or whimsical, depending on your perspective, but it does not violate the code. Dubious scientific and historical claims exist even in advanced academic institutions, but you never hear of funding being withdrawn on such a basis.

Over the course of several months, more reporting has also come out about alleged sexual and physical abuse at a particular faith-based school.

Complainants say officials with Legacy Christian Academy and the adjacent Mile Two Church subjected them to exorcisms, solitary confinement, sexual abuse and a severe form of corporal punishment known as "paddling."

Of course, there is no place for abuse in our schools. As a parent, I want my children to attend safe schools conducive to their learning. "Paddling" in schools is also illegal under the act and, according to the Supreme Court, violates the Canadian Criminal Code. If these allegations are proven, perpetrators must face the relevant lawful consequences and these schools should be duly called to account.

While society continues to drift toward media trials, convictions and sentences, governmental authorities must remember that the presumption of innocence in criminal law remains a fundamental charter right.

If the response to every allegation of inadequate investigation of abuse at public or private institutions was the withdrawal of public funding or closure, many institutions would not still be standing today.

Withdrawal of funding not only reeks of authoritarianism and intolerance of alternative views, but is a disservice to taxpaying parents or guardians freely exercising their right to raise their children or wards in accordance with their religious beliefs and conscience.

At a time when the public education system is greatly in need of educators and student support, the last thing that is needed is increasing the burden on the public school system by withdrawing public funding for these other schools and limiting available educational options to parents. Such actions only lend credence to "persecution" theories and distract from more important issues.

Does this imply that all is well at QISs in Saskatchewan and the status quo should be maintained in every respect? Absolutely not!

If this has revealed one thing, it is the need for greater transparency and accountability in our education system. Any faith-based institution that is unwilling to be transparent and accountable should not be given the privilege of educating the next generation.

Our children deserve the very best standards of education. Faith should not be a license for compromise in this respect.

There may truly be a need for greater regulatory oversight within the education system, nevertheless, the focus should not be on attacking QISs or implicitly threatening their existence. Instead, we should identify support mechanisms that can ensure the aims of education are effectively advanced at all levels, including at QISs.

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