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Ontario public schools can offer up to an hour a week of religious study as early as first grade so long as the instruction is educational and not dominated by any one faith, says the province's education minister, Marion Boyd.

She said the guidelines accepted the "multifaith basis" of Ontario society and were in keeping with January's Court of Appeal's ruling that threw out the province's old religious education law as unconstitutional.

The court said public schools may teach religion as education, not indoctrination. Before the court decision, a provincial task force report on religious education in public schools had recommended that 33 to 66 percent of all religious education be devoted to Christian religions.

"There's no question that there are portions of our population who feel that indoctrination within the schools ought to be allowed," Ms. Boyd said.

But she rejected the task force recommendation, explaining it "would give primacy to that faith and would contravene the Charter (of Rights and Freedoms) as interpreted by the Court of Appeal."

The new policy affects Ontario's public schools, from first through eighth grade, but not the Catholic schools, which are also publicly funded. The right of Catholic schools to religious instruction was enshrined in Canada's Articles of Confederation.

"Public schools are places where students of diverse backgrounds can grow together," Ms. Boyd said, adding that educating students in a variety of faiths will promote understanding.

Most of the affected school boards are in rural Ontario.

It was the court-ordered halt to the Elgin County School Board-authorized religious classes that prompted the new guidelines. At the time, Elgin's classes were taught by local Bible clubs and emphasized the primacy of Christianity.

The Toronto Board of Education's schools do not teach religion. They do offer a multifaith, religious readings list for opening exercises.

Ms. Boyd said voluntary religious instruction can be offered in the schools before or after regular hours, but only if all religious groups seeking access are treated equally.

The new guidelines, which allow parents who object to the instruction to withdraw their children, she said, would take effect in about 18 months.

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