A multi-faith coalition and eight families launched a lawsuit June 26 against the provincial government for violating the Charter rights of their disabled children.
The children, who are either blind, deaf or learning disabled, attend religious schools where they receive no government funding for their disabilities. However, students in independent schools with different special needs, such as speech impediments, get help.
“How could such thoughtless, uncaring discrimination occur?” asks Missy Hecker whose 11-year-old son Max Greenberg has a nonverbal learning disorder. He attends a Jewish day school.
When Max was in Grade 3 he could “barely function” in class, according to Hecker. She attributes his struggles to the lack of government-funded support.
In 2000, Ontario’s Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care began to provide funding to assist students in faith-based schools who required speech therapy, nursing services, occupational therapy or physiotherapy. However, the Ontario government decided that funding for blind, deaf, and children with learning disabilities would not be available since it comes from the Ministry of Education.
“Once the government decides to start providing funding for disabled children in religious schools, the government cannot do it on a discriminatory basis,” says Allan Kaufman, a lawyer involved in the case. “What the government is doing now is funding some children with disabilities, but not all.”
The coalition and families also charge the government is discriminating against their children on the basis of religion. The special needs of blind, deaf and learning disabled are fully funded in public and Catholic schools but not in any other faith-based schools. This is also a violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights, according to the group.
“Max will continue to have struggles and because he attends a Jewish day school he is being denied supports by the provincial government that are his constitutional right as a disabled person,” says Hecker.
“Who would have thought I would ever have had to explain to my child that his very own government is discriminating against him on the basis of religion and on the basis of disability,” says Hecker. “It is time for the province to declare that it is for funding without discrimination.”
The lawsuit, which was launched by the Multi-Faith Coalition (MFC) for Equal Funding of Faith-Based Schools and eight families, is a test case seeking a declaration from the Ontario Superior Court that the Charter rights of the children and their families have been violated.
“Once a court declares that your own government has violated your charter right there are very serious implications flowed to the government,” says Kaufman. “Then the government’s obligation is to stop doing it immediately and rectify it.”
John Vanasselt, director of communications for the Ontario Alliance of Christian Schools (OACS) says the Alliance hopes for success with the action.
“We would very much like to see the Ministry of Health expand the envelope for eligibility in funding these children,” says Vanasselt.
“When disabled children are being discriminated against, that’s the worst sort of discrimination.”
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Group fights for rights of disabled children in religious schools