What can an Ontario-based Christian education organization, like the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools, bring to the national sphere of faith and politics? The OACS’s involvement in the Loyola High School court case demonstrates a number of ways in which a spirit of collaboration and a willingness to thoughtfully enter an ongoing dialogue are key.
For those unfamiliar with the Loyola case, here’s a brief overview: In December 2012, the Quebec Court of Appeal issued a decision that would require Montreal’s Loyola High School to teach a state-imposed Ethics and Religious Culture course (ERC) from a “neutral” perspective. Members of Christian school communities all over Canada saw a problem with the government regulation—some viewed it as an unreasonable and even coercive infringement on religious freedom.
“You’ve got a situation where a Jesuit Catholic high school is being told that in its religion course it cannot be Catholic,” said Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) Director, Jules de Jager. “The Quebec government was speaking not only into content requirements of courses,” he added, “but speaking into the pedagogical aspect of how a course is taught and insisting on a supposed “neutral” position—which doesn’t exist.”
That sentiment is one echoed by André Schutten, legal counsel at the Association for Reformed Action (ARPA). Rather than force independently funded Christian schools into a false posture of neutrality, Schutten stated that parents should be the ones to have the first and final say on the religious and moral instruction of their children.
“Our hope was that the Supreme Court would affirm hundreds of years of legal precedent that parents are the first decision-makers for their children,” he said in a recent ARPA article about the Loyola case, “and that religious freedom includes the right to train children within a particular worldview.”
That hope, on some levels, was realized last month, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of Loyola.
“… All seven justices who heard the case were unanimous that Loyola’s religious rights were violated when the Quebec government refused the school’s request for an exemption based on its Catholic character and 175-year history as a Jesuit institution,” wrote Cardus Senior Director Peter Stockland in a blog post about the outcome.
Although it’s not yet clear whether educators at Loyola can teach from a confessional perspective within the context of the state-imposed ERC program, the court did acknowledge that a Catholic school shouldn’t be forced to teach Catholicism from a ‘neutral’ perspective. Paragraph 70 of the court’s ruling is clear on that point:
“To tell a Catholic school how to explain its faith undermines the liberty of the members of its community who have chosen to give effect to the collective dimension of their religious beliefs by participating in a denominational school.”
Many supporters of Christian education in Canada were heartened by this response from the Supreme Court—including Mr. de Jager, whose involvement in the Loyola case was framed by a commitment to team work and collaboration from the start. As Executive director of OACS, he knew that whatever support he extended to Loyola would hinge on an ongoing national conversation between several Christian school organizations in Canada—like the Prairie Association for Christian Education and The Society of Christian Schools in British Columbia.
“The idea was for ARPA to find a way to get some kind of grouping of Christian schools involved in the role on the case,” he explained. “They were hoping to develop a group with intervener status. But it had to be sufficient for the judges to even consider letting them in. We were asked if we could support the intervention, and so that’s where this thing took off: The OACS committed itself to the project … lending encouragement and moral support.”
“It was really neat to work together with such a broad coalition of independent Christian schools from across the country,” said Mr. Schutten. “The group that we ended up building called ACES Canada (the Association of Christian Educators and Schools) was made up of six different regional umbrella christian school groups, including the OACS.”
ACES represented well over 300 schools, which means 70,000 students, 6,500 teachers, and a broader christian community of a quarter of a million.
Looking back, Mr. de Jager sees the formation of ACES as an instance of “formal cooperation and conversation” between different groups within the national Christian School movement.
“It gave ARPA the gravitas to move forward with a request for intervener status, which was granted” he said, adding that the position of ACES was made known at the supreme court hearing (which he attended).
“The judges picked up on some of the arguments that came out of our intervention. We could see evidence of our arguments in the hearing. It demonstrates that the OACS, and its partners, were playing a significant role in this court case.”
Mr. de Jagger said that the OACS will continue to get involved in matters related to government advocacy on a case by case basis. Experiences like last month’s Loyola hearing affirmed to him that such involvement can effectively shape the future of education, even at a national level.