An Easy Case

Why funding Catholic schools on terms not available to others is an obvious infringement of religious freedom

In Good Spirit School Division No. 204 v Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212, 2017 SKQB 109, the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench held that funding Catholic schools, and no others, for educating students who do not belong to their religion is contrary to the guarantee of the freedom of religion in paragraph 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and not justified under the Charter‘s section 1. In commenting on that decision, I wrote that this “is correct, and quite obviously so. There is no meaningful account of religious neutrality on which singling out one group for a favourable treatment denied others is permissible.” To my enduring surprise, some of my friends disagree with this, so I will try to explain my views further.

Writing for Policy Options, Joanna Baron and Geoff Sigalet argue that in Saskatchewan the province’s duty of religious neutrality has to be understood in the context of “Saskatchewan’s Confederation compromise [which] entailed a built-in elevation of the status of Catholics” and required provincial funding of Catholic schools. In that context, allowing non-Catholic students to access these schools “does not violate a principle of religious neutrality — it is the definition of neutrality.” They add that “the Charter itself does not explicitly require state neutrality vis-à-vis religion” ― in contrast to the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, under which the funding of vouchers allowing students to attend religious schools has nevertheless been permitted. They claim, finally, that it is ironic that the Charter, which is supposed “to give individuals rights vis-à-vis the state”, ends up foreclosing the educational choices of non-Catholic students. Finally, they worry about the way in which students would be classified as Catholic or not to determine who is, and who is not, entitled to access Catholic schools.

In an Advocates for the Rule of Law post, Asher Honickman makes some similar points. Religious neutrality is only a judicial construction, and in any event not absolute. Determining who is Catholic enough to attend a Catholic school is problematic. Mr. Honickman adds that it would be discrimination to require “non-Catholics … to attend secular schools, while Catholics would have a taxpayer funded choice to attend either Catholic or secular schools.” While

the government could provide equal funding to all religious schools, but this would prove far too costly. The Charter is by and large a ‘negative rights’ document and the government should not have to break the bank to comply with its provisions.

In any event, since they receive public funding to cover their capital expenses, Catholic schools could charge non-Catholics cheaper tuition to any non-Catholic students who wished to attend, and the additional benefit of receiving funding to cover their individual education is too trivial to count as an infringement of neutrality.

I do not find any of this at all persuasive. Begin with the suggestion, admittedly never fully articulated, that we should not make too much of religious neutrality because it is not expressly referred to in the Charter. Justice Dickson, as he then was, rejected it in the very first religious liberty case R v Big M Drug Mart Ltd, [1985] 1 SCR 295. Dismissing an argument that the Lord’s Day Act was not contrary to the Charter‘s guarantee of freedom of religion because it did not include a proscription of religious establishment, he noted that “recourse to categories from the American jurisprudence” ― free exercise of religion and non-establishment ― “is not particulary helpful in defining the meaning of freedom of conscience and religion under the Charter” because these categories flow from “the wording of the First Amendment”. (339) They do indeed, and the wording is not accidental, as Michael McConnell explained in this excellent lecture.

The Charter only contains a single guarantee of religious liberty, and the question is whether its meaning in 1982 (on an originalist approach) or now ( on a living constitution one) includes state neutrality. The answer to this question is an emphatic yes, whatever one’s reference point. As Justice Taschereau wrote in Chaput v Romain, [1955] SCR 834, “[i]n our country, there is no state religion. … All religious creeds are set on an equal footing.” (840; translation mine.) As a statement of positive law, this was perhaps a tad optimistic while the Lord’s Day Act was still in force; but as a statement of what religious liberty, properly understood, meant by the 1950s (and indeed earlier) and still means, this passage remains unsurpassed in its forceful simplicity.

State neutrality is then, along with a rejection of religious coercion, one of the fundamental principles of paragraph 2(a) of the Charter. The Charter itself contains one  exception to this principle: section 29, which protects “rights or privileges guaranteed by or under the Constitution of Canada in respect of denominational, separate or dissentient schools.” (The fact that the Charter’s framers thought it necessary to make this exception explicit suggests that they too understood neutrality to be the general principle.) Except insofar as they are “guaranteed by or under the Constitution of Canada”, the privileges of “separate” schools are subject to the general principle.

The constitution’s “built-in elevation of the status of Catholics”, in other words, is set at a precisely calibrated level. It permits the “discrimination” involved in allowing Catholics ― or, more precisely Catholics or Protestants, depending on who happens to be the minority ― a choice between public and “separate” schools, and immunizes it from Charter scrutiny. By necessary implication, it permits and even requires the state to distinguish between Catholics and others, however distasteful we might find the drawing of such distinctions. (That said, as Justice Layh found in Good Spirit, “proof of one’s Catholic identity is baptism in the Catholic tradition, commonly evidenced by a baptismal certificate” [17] ― not an especially intrusive inquiry, all things considered.) The constitution does not, however, permit conferring on Catholics them the further advantage ― whether it is a great or a small one ― of admitting and proselytizing to non-Catholic students at the public expense. It is not for the courts to upset this calibration that is quite clearly set by the constitution itself, whether or not doing so would be convenient or save money. Having found that the admission of non-Catholic students was not “guaranteed by or under the Constitution of Canada”, the Good Spirit court was quite correct to apply the principle of neutrality to it.

As I have been saying from the beginning, if the province of Saskatchewan does not like the outcome that non-Catholic students and their parents lose the (limited) measure of school choice that was available to them, the obvious solution is to provide more school choice on a non-discriminatory basis. This, in fact, is what the State of Ohio did in Zelman v Simmons-Harris, 536 U.S. 639 (2002), the First Amendment case on which Ms. Baron and Mr. Sigalet rely. As Chief Justice Rehnquist described the scheme at issue in his majority opinion, “[a]ny private school, whether religious or nonreligious, may participate in the program and accept program students so long as the school” meets certain administrative requirements, educational standards, and does not discriminate. (645) The issue was whether the eligibility of religious schools for participation violated the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court held that it did not, and the result would be the same under the neutrality principle of the Charter. But the Zelman-Harris court did not uphold, and would not have upheld, a similar scheme the participation in which was restricted to religious schools only, still to Catholic schools alone. If Saskatchewan want to include Catholic schools in a broader school choice programme, that would have been constitutionally permissible. It is not permissible to limit school choice to such schools alone.

It is not the Charter, then, that limits school choice in Saskatchewan in the wake of the Good Spirit decision, but the political choices made by the province’s legislature. Will it be too expensive to offer meaningful, non-discriminatory choice to students? We don’t know; the province has not, so far as I can tell, even considered the possibility, rushing to override the decision by invoking the Charter‘s “notwithstanding clause”. But whatever the amounts at issue, it will not do to say that it is better to offer a discriminatory benefit to some if we cannot offer the same benefit to all. The Supreme Court rejected this proposition in Schachter v Canada, [1992] 2 SCR 679, and rightly so. No one would accept that a province offer a tax cut to Catholics alone on the basis that it’s better to give one to some people than to none. The same reasons that would make that utterly unacceptable condemn the policy of subsidizing Catholic schools (beyond what is constitutionally required) and no others.

While some aspects of the Good Spirit case were difficult, the Charter issue that it presented was not. Once it is established that the education of non-Catholic students is not a constitutionally entrenched aspect of “separate” Catholic schools, it follows straightforwardly that it can only be subsidized on equal terms with those available to other schools, religious or otherwise. To conclude so is not to impose a new interpretation on constitutional text, but to apply principles that were recognized in Canada well before the Charter‘s entrenchment. Those who would depart from these principles in the name, ultimately, of financial expediency and administrative convenience should re-consider.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

One thought on “An Easy Case”

  1. Religious neutrality/non-establishment is a better fit with section 15 than 2(a). It came to be expressed in 2(a) because the Sabbath shopping law issue blew up before section 15 came into force. A problem with this is that all kinds of things have been read into section 2 that have little to do with “freedom”.

    It does seem that a constitution with a prominent place for denominational rights and a reference to theism in the 1982 preamble sits uneasily with a strict religious neutrality principle. Your approach seems to be to read the exceptions narrowly and the principle broadly, but one could equally argue that both minority denominational rights and religious neutrality are ultimately pragmatic accommodations of underlying religious diversity and the tension should be resolved pragmatically.

    One problem with the decision is that it is now a justiciable matter how Catholic a student is. Secular courts do occasionally have to get into these issues, but it isn’t happy for anyone.

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