You may have already heard that Brampton father Oliver Erazo won an Ontario Superior Court case against the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board. What a victory for secularism, right? Well, no, not really.
The facts aren’t quite so appealing when you look at the big picture. For starters, the ruling Erazo won only applies to grades 9-12.
The reason for that is because up until the mid-1980s, Catholic schools only got funding for primary schools. Bill Davis – Premier at the time – announced the extending of funding to secondary schools in 1984. It was, make no mistake, a ploy to try and curry support from his conservative Christian base for the upcoming election – in fact, it was actually reversing a decision he had made earlier to not extend funding. Unfortunately for him, the plan backfired – his base was mostly Protestant Christian, and they were quite annoyed by the move, even though he had taken pains to make it clear that the new Catholic secondary schools would be open to every student. It was the start of a downward slide for the Tories that wouldn’t end until Mike Harris ten years later.
So when public funding was extended to Catholic secondary schools, it was on the condition that they allow “open access” to non-Catholic students, and don’t force them to attend religious instruction classes. Those rules do not apply to Catholic primary schools, and they never have. Catholic primary schools have always had the absolute right to not only refuse students admission based on religion, but also to force them to attend religious classes and services. Erazo’s victory does not change that.
It also changes very little for secondary school students. I have seen a lot of crowing on blogs and social media about how it means students in Catholic secondary students can now request exemptions from religious instruction. Even the headline at OneSchoolSystem.org says so. Sorry, not true. Secondary students already had the right to be exempted from religious classes. That was not what Erazo was challenging.
So what exactly was Erazo fighting?
Well, what the school was arguing was that even though Erazo’s kids were exempt from mandatory religious… classes… they are not necessarily exempt from mandatory religious… events. In other words, they were arguing, while it would be illegal to force the Erazo kids to attend a class on divine transubstantiation, if the school had an event with a speaker in the auditorium presenting on divine transubstantiation which all students were supposed to attend, so too would Erazo’s kids. The school argued that it’s basically a pain in the ass to have to accommodate the students that don’t want to attend such events – what to do with them? send ’em home? sequester them in a classroom for the duration (which would require tying up at least one staff member)? – and, hey, they’re not “classes”, they’re events, so they’re technically not violating the law against forcing students to attend religious classes.
To put it in simple terms, what Catholic secondary schools were doing was flagrantly violating the spirit of the law by taking advantage of a technicality in its wording. Unsurprisingly, the judge was having none of that.
In other words, nothing has changed. Erazo just caught the Catholic school boards breaking the law – in spirit, if not the actual, technical letter of the law – and the Catholic school boards tried to get their absurd defence based on a ridiculous technicality justified.
Don’t get me wrong; I’m raising a glass to toast Oliver Erazo as a hero this weekend. It takes a strong, dedicated person to take on a school board and win, and his victory did shine a light on the misdeeds of Catholic school boards, and on their sense of privilege. And while the OneSchoolSystem.org headline is false, I can understand their excitement, because this battle has been a long and torturous slog against deceitful and cowardly politicians, so it’s kinda nice to see something happen that isn’t a step back. All that’s good stuff.
But when I look at the larger picture, nothing’s really changed. We’re still right where we were before Erazo – right where we’ve been for the last 30 years. Non-Catholic secondary students can still attend Catholic schools and are still exempt from mandatory religious classes – and, as has not been clarified, all mandatory religious “things”, even if they’re not specifically classes. Non-Catholic primary students are still fucked – and we hope only figuratively these days.