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.

No Money for You

Can Saskatchewan fund non-Catholic students in Catholic schools? Raising government ire, a court says no.

A couple of weeks ago, in Good Spirit School Division No. 204 v Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212, 2017 SKQB 109, Saskatchewan’s Court of Queen’s Bench held that provincial funding for non-Catholic students of Catholic “separate” schools in the  province was unconstitutional. Saskatchewan’s government is upset, and has proclaimed its intention to invoke the “notwithstanding clause” of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to nullify the effects of this decision. In this post, I will summarize the decision and briefly explain why I think it is correct. I will comment on the use of the Charter‘s override provision separately.

The constitution requires Saskatchewan to allow the formation of, and to provide equal funding for “separate” schools for Catholics and Protestants, whenever one of these two groups happens to be a minority in a given school district and if parents belonging to the minority group request it. The mechanics of this requirement are somewhat complex: section 17 of the Saskatchewan Act, 1905, which created the province from the North-West Territories, makes applicable to it a somewhat modified version of section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which guarantee “right[s] or privilege[s] with respect to separate schools which any class of persons ha[d in 1905]” under the then-existing territorial law. Laws enacted in furtherance of this guarantee are constitutional and not subject to scrutiny under the Charter, because its enactment did not abrogate the guarantee. Any other provincial laws relative to education, including the “separate” schools, are subject to Charter scrutiny like all other legislation in Canada.

The case was a challenge by a public school board to the funding received by a Catholic one for non-Catholic students attending one of its schools. If this funding were not available, the students would have attended a school operated by the plaintiff, and the funding would have followed them there. The case raised two main questions. Is the funding of non-Catholic students attending Catholic “separate” schools part of the guaranteed rights or privileges? If not, is it contrary to the Charter? There were a couple of preliminary issues too: whether the plaintiffs had standing to sue, and whether the school at the centre of the proceedings, St Theodore, was a legitimate “separate” school despite the fact that most of its students were not Catholic. Justice Layh answered both of these questions in the affirmative, and I will say no more of them. The decision is 230 pages long, not too much of it superfluous. I will only focus on the key points here.

 

Justice Layh found that there was no constitutionally guaranteed right for a “separate” Catholic school board to receive public funding for educating non-Catholic students. Only “denominational aspects” of the “separate” schools were constitutionally protected from legislative interference. The aim of the guarantee was to preserve minority religious communities by allowing them to withdraw their children from the majority’s schools and so to avoid assimilation. Moreover, at the time of the guarantee’s entrenchment, Catholics viewed education jointly with non-Catholics with great suspicions, and while constitutional interpretation had to account for new social realities ― notably the fact that Catholics and protestants were no longer the only religious groups of any significance in Canada, making special protections for them anomalies ― it could not import theological developments, such as Catholicism’s greater openness to other religions ― that occurred since the Saskatchewan Act came into force.

As a result, the ability to educate non-Catholics could not be viewed as a “denominational aspect” of the functioning of Catholic schools; it was not essential to their functioning as Catholic institutions. Therefore it was not constitutionally protected. Nor did the requirement of non-discriminatory funding for “separate” schools extend to funding students from outside the religious community for which they were set up. The funding requirement served to protect the distinctive religious character of the schools, not the ability of outsiders to attend them. In short, the provision of funding of which the plaintiffs complained was not a constitutional requirement, but a legislative choice of the province.

This area of the law is quite complicated, and I cannot claim particular expertise on it. To me, however, Justice Layh’s reasons are largely persuasive. It will not come as a surprise to regular readers that I am very skeptical about his take on the role of social change in constitutional interpretation, as I might further explain in a future post, if time permits. But I do not think that this is material here. Justice Layh makes a compelling case about the originalist raison d’être of the constitutional protections for “separate” schools being to allow minority communities to stand on their own, and about there being no legal right to funding for non-Catholic students in 1905. A purely originalist analysis would not, I think, yield conclusions different from his.

Having concluded that the funding of non-Catholic students was not exempt from Charter scrutiny, Justice Layh turned to the plaintiff’s claims that it infringed the constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and equality. Part of the respondents’ case on this point was that the plaintiff, not being a natural person, was not entitled to make such claims, since only individuals could hold religious beliefs or claim equality rights under section 15 of the Charter. Justice Layh dismissed this argument. In his view, although only an individual could claim that a generally neutral law had a disproportionate or discriminatory effect on him or her, anyone could argue that a legislative measure was unconstitutional on its face, as the plaintiff here was doing. I find this distinction dubious; once the plaintiff is granted standing to sue in the public interest, shouldn’t it be able to advance constitutional claims on behalf of others? Isn’t that the point of public interest standing? But nothing turns on this here.

Justice Layh found that funding non-Catholic students in Catholic schools ― and, importantly, not funding, say, non-Muslim students in Muslim schools or non-Jewish students in Jewish schools ― amounted a breach of the state’s duty of religious neutrality and to discrimination on the basis of religion. Neutrality means treating all religious groups equally, as well as not favouring religion over non-religion or vice versa. Providing money to Catholic schools so that they can educate non-Catholics, instructing them in Catholicism and thus “evangelizing” them, as well as creating goodwill in the community, without providing equivalent opportunities to other religious groups is not acting impartially, and is thus a breach of the Charter‘s religious freedom guarantee as explained, notably in Mouvement laïque québécois v. Saguenay (City), 2015 SCC 16, [2015] 2 S.C.R. 3 (which I explained and discussed here). It is also, ipso facto, discriminatory. I think 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.

There remained the question of a possible justification of these infringements of Charter rights under section 1, as limitations “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”. Justice Layh found that no such demonstration had been carried out. Indeed, the provincial government had not even really attempted one. The defendant school division, for its part, argued that funding Catholic schools for students outside of their faith served to provide educational opportunities to all students, and choice to the parents. Justice Layh rejected these objectives, on the basis that they had nothing to do with the limitation of funding of non-denominational students (if I can be forgive this use of the term) to Catholic schools. Public schools could provide educational opportunities, while the objective of enhancing choice could not be advanced by an inherently discriminatory policy. While these objections seem to me to go to the “rational connection” stage of the section 1 test rather than to invalidate the objectives themselves, nothing turns on this. The objections themselves are well taken, and Justice Layh’s conclusion, correct.

In the result, Justice Layh declares that Saskatchewan’s legislative and regulatory provisions allowing funding of non-Catholic students in Catholic “separate” schools is unconstitutional. He adds that “[a]ppreciating that the implementation of this declaration will cause significant repercussions in the province, this declaration is stayed until June 30, 2018.” [476] The stay, I think, is self-evidently appropriate here, and this case should be kept in mind in any future discussions of suspended declarations of unconstitutionality.

As it works its way up the judicial hierarchy, Good Spirit School Division could also produce important rulings on the constitutional issues it addresses ― and I hope that appellate courts will pay attention to Justice Layh’s reasons, which strike me ― despite some reservations ― as generally very careful, well-argued, and perhaps above all lucid. But all of that is likely to be overshadowed by debates about the Saskatchewan government’s invocation of the “notwithstanding clause” to annul Justice Layh’s decision. I hope to say more on that in short order.