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Why John Tory Is Right–and Wrong–about Religious Schools

The great province of Ontario, Canada’s richest and most populous, is in the throes of an election. As many Canadians know, one of the hottest issues in that election is the promise of Conservative leader John Tory to consider funding religious elementary and secondary schools in that province.

As a native of Ontario, a product of its public school (and university) system, and one with some interest in questions of church and state, I’ll offer my full support for John Tory—and my full disagreement with him.

First, then, my support. Tory argues that if the government of Ontario ought to support a Roman Catholic separate school system, as it has for a long time, then it should support other religiously-based schools. It makes no sense in 2007 to continue to cater to the preferences of what used to be the largest religious minority in Ontario without offering similar support to others.

Tory is exactly right. Official support of Ontario’s Roman Catholic system was predicated upon the public system being Protestant, and it has been a long time since that system was even slightly infused with Protestant symbols and values. Instead, the system has been secularized, with secular values (citizenship, environmentalism, mutual respect, etc.) being taught and no religious education at all.

So it is the very definition of anachronism, and one costly in both money and goodwill among non-Catholic Ontarians, for tax dollars to continue to support just one particular religious system. If the state has evacuated the one system of its religious content (Protestanism), it can hardly justify maintaining the religious content of the other.

And here is how Tory is wrong, I believe. He should be saying that the public system is all Ontario needs. It is a system that provides the education the state legitimately requires of its citizens-in-training. Inculcation of religion can happen in the two other institutions well suited to providing it: one’s home and one’s religious community.

Rather than opening up the provincial treasury, then, to every religious group that asks for help–or, worse, opening it up only to those who pass some kind of secular muster (for how can the secular state decide properly which religious groups deserve funding?)–the Catholic system should simply be either entirely funded by that church or secularized and integrated into the public system.

To be sure, however, the public system must make two crucial changes if the concerns are to be answered of many Christians (Catholic and otherwise) and of many other religious people who hope for their own schools.

First, the public system must stop, in fact, inculcating a de facto religion of certain secularist values. It must stop preaching (I use the word advisedly) very particular secularist ethics regarding, say, sexuality, marriage, and family life (which tell children that some legal views are good and other equally legal views are bad); very particular secularist ethics regarding epistemology (which pronounce some legitimate views of rationality and science good and other legitimate views bad–such as whether one can rationally believe in sacred scripture or trust religious tradition); and so on.

Indeed, I want the secular public schools to be more secular, not secularist: to reflect our publicly-held values and only those values, and leave other questions to various religious and philosophical societies for further discussion.

Teachers have plenty to do teaching math, science, literature, music, and so on, plus our secularly-agreed-upon values of honesty, diligence, tolerance of legitimate diversity, enjoyment of positive differences, and the like. They should not be asked to referee on matters of current public dispute, nor should they arrogate themselves the right to pronounce upon such matters to young people who ought to be able to depend on them to provide an education suitable for all citizens, of whatever religious or philosophical outlook.

Second, in such a secular (again, please note: not secularist) school system, we need education about religions as part of the standard social studies curriculum. What do our Hindu neighbours believe and practice, or our Sikh neighbours, or our Jewish neighbours, or our Christian neighbours? (Yes, we need the last one as well, since we are now all strange to each other, and knowledge of Christianity can no longer be assumed of everyone, not even everyone who calls himself or herself a Christian!)

Religion, that is, should be a “teachable subject” in the curriculum, with training to teach it of the same sort as that required to teach English or science. We already offer religious studies degrees in our public universities, so there is literally no problem in supplying teachers for our lower levels, if we will recognize our need for such education.

(I thus am disagreeing with those who think religious education in the public system can be done by having clergy from various religions drop by and represent their faiths. Such visits might be helpfully illustrative, but as career advocates of their respective religions, trained to educate in a quite different venue of church, synagogue, or temple, they cannot be assumed to have the particular pedagogical skills or outlook required to teach properly in a public setting. That’s what religious studies and education departments at universities are for.)

Therefore, if we want to champion a single public system for the whole public, as I do, then that system must stop discriminating against religious views both by advocacy of a particular outlook, secularism, and by ignoring religions as the important social facts they are.

So John Tory is both right and wrong.

And so is the current public school system in Ontario–and in every other province in Canada as well.


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