Yesterday, I summarized and briefly commented on the decision of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench in in Good Spirit School Division No. 204 v Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212, 2017 SKQB 109, which held that funding Catholic schools for educating non-Catholic students was an unjustifiable infringement of religious liberty and equality guarantees of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In my view this decision is correct. However, plenty of people disagree. Importantly, so does the government of Saskatchewan, which has announced that it will have the provincial legislation resort to the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause” to nullify the Court’s decision, ostensibly in the name of school choice. Some thoughtful people, like Emmett Macfarlane and Dennis Baker, are supportive of the idea. In my view, however, it is misguided and hypocritical, not to mention illustrative of why the notwithstanding clause should never be used.
The best justification for occasionally resorting to section 33 of the Charter, which allows a legislature to suspend for a renewable period of up to five years the operation of constitutionally protected right is that the legislature disagrees with the courts’ interpretation of that right. After all, if the truth about rights, to borrow a phrase from Jeremy Waldron, exists at all, it’s not obvious that courts have privileged access to it. Questions about rights, about what counts as justifiable limitations of rights, are difficult, and reasonable people can disagree about them. In the face of such disagreement, isn’t it acceptable for the people’s elected representatives to decide that their views ought to prevail over those of unelected judges?
Trouble is, this solemn scene ― representatives of the people deliberating about rights and coming to conclusions that are reasoned and reasonable, if different from the judges’ ― has not taken place in Saskatchewan. The government doesn’t say that it disagrees with Justice Layh’s views about the scope of religious liberty or equality. It does not argue that the constitutionally protected freedom of religion does not encompass a duty of religious neutrality on the part of the state. It does not say that granting funding for students outside of a school’s denomination to Catholic schools and to no others is consistent with neutrality or not discriminatory. It is content to state the objective of “school choice” ― which, by the way, I think is a laudable objective, but which the government’s lawyers didn’t even dare put to the Court ― as if the end justifies the means, and it is permissible to disregard Charter rights as soon as one has a worthwhile reason for doing so. This is not what the defenders of the notwithstanding clause, or indeed the critics of any judicial enforcement of individual rights, say they have in mind. Why, then, do they defend the Saskatchewan government?
The Charter, or any sort of system that protects individual rights against infringement by the state, is based on the idea that the end does not always justify the means. At most, there is a proportionality test, such as the one embodied in section 1 of the Charter. A pressing social objective can justify some limitations of rights, but no more than is necessary, and in particular, not if less restrictive means are available to the government. Of course, whether the means at issue in a given case are the least restrictive available is a difficult question, and legislatures and courts might disagree about that. But there is no sign that Saskatchewan’s government has given any thought to alternative ways of achieving its professed objective of school choice. Why, then, do those boosters of the “notwithstanding clause” that justify its use by the existence of reasonable disagreement defend this government?
In reality, the government’s position is doubly hypocritical. It is hypocritical, first, because although it is posing as the defender of school choice, it is the government that is ultimately responsible for limiting the choices of the parents at the centre of this litigation. The government funds public schools. Its funding was not sufficient to keep a rural school open. The school board decided to close it, and have students be bussed to a different one. Instead of accepting this, some parents took advantage of constitutional rules allowing them to set up a “separate” Catholic school―in a village where there had never been one―, and non-Catholic parents, who had never had any particular interest in Catholicism, decided to also send their children there. If the choices of these parents mattered as much as the government now says they do, the local public school would have stayed open, and this case would not have arisen.
The government is hypocritical, second, because it has perfectly constitutional options to provide even more school choice than it now does ― in which it appears to take no interest. The government could provide all groups, including all religious groups, with funds to educate students from outside their communities. That would be real, meaningful school choice ― not the rather limited choice of a public or a Catholic school, which is only a choice, as Justice Layh points out, for those who do not mind their children receiving a Catholic education. Sure that might be costly system ― but if school choice is important enough to override constitutional rights, surely it’s worth a little tax raise?
Instead of admitting that its position is driven by fiscal, and presumably ultimately electoral, considerations rather than an authentic concern with school choice, the government compounds its hypocrisy with misleading threats. It claims that “[t]he ruling [in Good Spirit School Division] could also risk provincial funding of 26 other faith-based schools including Luther College, Regina Christian School, Saskatoon Christian School and Huda School.” The press release conveniently doesn’t mention the fact that this funding, which was not actually at issue in the Good Spirit School Division case, is less that the funding Catholic schools receive, and that at least the Huda School was on the side of the plaintiffs in the proceedings. Indeed, I wonder how the people involved the Huda School feel about being used in this way to make the government’s case considering the testimony of the school’s president at trial. Here’s how Justice Layh describes it:
he asked why the Huda School cannot receive funding to educate non-Muslim students, just like Catholic schools receive funding to educate non-Catholic students. The Huda School does not discriminate against hiring non-Muslim teachers (unlike Catholic schools). The majority of its teaching staff is non-Muslim. Dr. Aboguddah testified that the Huda School would welcome non-Muslim students to its growing school of 430 students (in 2016) which would provide an opportunity to build bridges with the broader Canadian community to reduce the stereotyping and negative image affecting the Muslim community in light of recent world events. 
A Rabbi similarly testified “that certain advantages would accrue to the small Jewish school in Regina if it received complete government funding for non-Jewish students.”  Again, if the government were committed to meaningful, non-discriminatory school choice, it would fund schools equally, regardless of who is behind them. The constitution would not stand in its way. It is its choice not to do so ― and it ought to accept the constitutional consequences of this choice.
Like a court looking to uphold a dubious administrative decision on a reasonableness standard, Profs. Macfarlane and Baker, and those who agree with them, offer their own reasons for why Justice Layh’s decision was wrong. I might return to that in a future post. Here, my point is that the government of Saskatchewan does not give any such reasons. Its justification for overriding this decision cannot withstand scrutiny. And it’s the government, not the thoughtful (if in my view mistaken) scholars, that gets to use the “notwithstanding clause”. If government were run by profs. Macfarlane and Baker, I would have fewer qualms about its ability to override judicial determinations of constitutional rights. But it is not.
As this case demonstrates, real-life governments are largely uninterested in thinking about constitutional rights. If they are allowed to disregard judicial decisions, they will not engage in serious deliberation themselves. They will press ahead with their political objectives, sloganeering and lying along the way. I have said this before ― in the face of judicial decisions with which I virulently disagreed ― and I say so again: if we are serious about constitutionally entrenched rights, we are better off with a categorical presumption against allowing legislatures to resort to the “notwithstanding clause”.