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Law Allowing Religious Teaching in Schools Struck Down in Ontario

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The Ontario Court of Appeal has struck down a 46-year-old provincial regulation allowing religious instruction in the public schools.

The court ruled unanimously last week that the regulation violated the freedoms of conscience and religion guaranteed by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enacted in 1982.

Although the challenge was not initiated by Jewish interests, the Ontario Jewish community has a long history of opposition to sectarian instruction in public schools.

B’nai Brith Canada and the Canadian Jewish Congress were granted intervenor status as the case wound its way through the judicial system.

The court acted on a complaint by four parents in Elgin County, southwestern Ontario, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

It enjoined the county Board of Education from “continuing to require or permit” its curriculum of religious studies to be offered in schools.

The ruling by the five justices of the appeals bench asserted that “state-authorized religious indoctrination amounts to the imposition of majoritarian religious beliefs on minorities.”

It stated further that “teaching students Christian doctrine as if it were the exclusive means through which to develop moral thinking and behavior amounts to religious coercion in the classroom.”

A lower court had ruled in favor of the Elgin County Board of Education, on grounds that as long as there was a provision exempting students from religious instruction, a case that there was compulsion could not be made.

CHILD TOLD SHE’D GO TO HELL

But according to the appeals court judgment, exemption for non-Christians and dissenters is itself a denial of the right to equal protection and equal benefit.

In order to avoid religious indoctrination, non-Christians and non-believers would have to take a positive step likely to render them conspicuous, the judgment said.

The province may now appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court, but Education Minister Scan Conway has not indicated whether it will do so.

The 82-page ruling describes the case of an Elgin County second-grader of the Bahai faith who was taught in public school that if she was not a Christian, she would go to hell. The child testified she had recurring nightmares in which she was pursued by the devil and felt she was burning in hell.

The Elgin County school board had turned over religious instruction to a fundamentalist Bible Club.

Simon Adler, an attorney from Kitchener, Ontario, who represented B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights in the case, welcomed the court’s decision.

“The government must now ensure that any regulation recognizes the vast needs and rights of everyone within a diverse and vibrant society,” he said.

Ontario Jewry has been fighting religion in the schools since 1897, when it allied with Baptists to fend off attempts by the Anglican Church to introduce religion into classrooms.

The Ontario regulation dates from 1944, when the provincial premier, George Drew, introduced formal religious instruction. The Jewish community initiated challenges regularly over the ensuing years.

In 1969, a special committee headed by a distinguished jurist recommended that religious instruction “be abandoned.” But nothing was done, because successive provincial governments preferred not to stir trouble over the issue.

The 1982 charter provided a principle enshrined in law to challenge religious instruction.

Contributing factors are a change in the climate of opinion in Canada and the increasingly heterogeneous nature of the Canadian population, which now includes sizeable numbers of Moslems, Buddhists, Sikhs and other non-Christian groups.

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