A group plans to file a major lawsuit against the Ontario government this month for discriminating against the rights of children with disabilities in religious schools. Special needs funding is not available to students with disabilities in religious schools on a level equal to public or Catholic school students with disabilities. The Ontario Multi-Faith Coalition for Equality in Education Funding has filed a formal notice that it intends to sue the provincial government for religious discrimination and violation of children’s rights according to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“There should be no differentiation between special needs children in the public system, Catholic system or any other system,” says Allan Kaufman, the lawyer representing the case.
“Children with disabilities should be treated on basis of their disability, not their religion.”
Since 2000, the government has funded some speech therapy as well as occupational therapy and physiotherapy for students who need these services in all schools, including religious schools. The funding comes through the Ministry of Health.
However, for students in religious schools who are visually impaired, hearing impaired or have learning disabilities, no special needs funding is available. Funding for students with these disabilities is available to public and Catholic schools through the Ministry of Education.
“The whole reason for it is bureaucratic,” says Kaufman. Religious schools can’t access funds for students with hearing, visual or learning disabilities from the Ministry of Health because these funds must come from the Ministry of Education. But the Ministry of Education doesn’t fund religious schools.
Kaufman has learned that the provincial government allocates $14.4 million for special needs in religious schools every year, yet only $4.5 million is actually spent through the Ministry of Health on speech, occupational and physical therapy needs.
With this lawsuit, the group is asking the government to spend what it has already allocated to religious schools for students with disabilities.
“This is not a case where we’re asking for money to be clawed out of the public system,” says Kaufman. “We’re simply saying, ‘Spend the $14.4 million. We can use that money badly among the Christian, Jewish, Greek Orthodox, and other religious schools.’”
Kaufman says if the categories funded by the Ministry of Health included support for the visually impaired, hearing impaired and those with learning disabilities, the $14.4 million would be spent.
The Multi-Faith Coalition has brought together eight families of disabled children who attend religious schools to launch a test case. They will be filing the lawsuit against the McGuinty government.
“We are forcing government to either put up its battery of lawyers to fight the disabled in court or to pay up what these children need,” says Kaufman.
“Our argument is that this is a state responsibility … When a child is in school and needs assistance to learn better because he or she can’t see, hear, or can’t learn because of learning disabilities, the government has to step in and provide funding. They assume that responsibility quite properly when a child is in the public or Catholic system. They don’t when a child is in any religious school. It’s wrong, it’s unjust and we’re going to end it.”
The Multi-Faith Coalition is comprised of representatives from most of the religious communities in Ontario including Jewish, Muslim, Greek Orthodox, Sikh and evangelical Christians.