Another argument for faith-based schooling

Another argument for faith-based schooling

I have previously pointed out that all John Tory’s arguments in favour of faith-based schools are purely secular. They are also uninspiringly bureaucratic: teacher certification, standardized testing, school-board oversight. The closest he gets to mounting a spirited defence of his policy is when he says “it’s the right thing to do,” by which he means fairness (fund all faiths or fund no faiths), which is also tepid. Since Tory seems unwilling to mount a more passionate secular defense of faith-based schooling, I’ll do it.

Let’s begin by getting the cliché out of the way: it was Voltaire who said “I do not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” This is not just a defence of freedom of speech but freedom of thought—we are all allowed to think whatever we want and to shout it out loud. In the Charter of Rights, the Voltairesque freedoms of thought and expression are enshrined as the second of our four “fundamental freedoms,” alongside freedom of association (this comes in at number four), freedom of peaceful assembly (number three) and freedom of conscience and religion (number one).

Strangely, one of the arguments I hear repeatedly against faith-based schooling is that public money shouldn’t be spent on a private matter such as religious affiliation. But faith is not a private matter, like the other fundamental freedoms, it is distinctly public. Religious freedom means that people can walk down the street and gather together in a publicly marked house of worship, pray together and suffer no persecution from the state or anyone else for their behaviour. Put another way, an individual’s religious affiliation is part of the baggage they are allowed bring to their dealings in the public realm.

Religious freedom is common in Western democracies, but in Canada there are two additional factors that give ours a distinct twist. One, we have also enshrined in the Charter the principle of multiculturalism, which posits that cultural diversity is an asset to society and should, broadly speaking, be promoted in public policy and in the public realm (including in the interpretation of the Charter itself). Two, our history includes a constitutionally enshrined right to publicly funded schooling for Catholics and Protestants. In Ontario (and in other minor backwaters like New Brunswick, from which, until now, Ontarians have never taken their cues), this is treated as an unfortunate mistake. Yet other provinces have extended full public funding to other faiths, choosing instead to treat Canada’s history of accommodating religious diversity as an asset to be extended not a drawback to be eradicated. They have not experienced massive pullouts from their public education systems. Instead, they have brought a number of previously insular communities of faith under the umbrella of public education and given them a common stake in the system’s well-being.

Public funding for faith-based schools is the only course of action that squares the secular triangle of religious freedom, multiculturalism and educational choice. It is also less suspicious of spirituality and more accepting of difference. It lets people express the role of faith in their family life by allowing them to choose either public or faith-based schooling for their children. And it also happens to be so logical to me that I am still confounded in my efforts to understand why anyone would see it any other way. The freedom to choose faith-based schooling poses no greater threat to public education than freedom of religion poses to the public realm.

So, to bring it back to Voltaire, I may not hold other people’s religious beliefs, but I’ll defend to the death their right to articulate them and to teach them to their children in publicly funded schools. To this I could add all of Tory’s mealy mouthed justifications—schools governed by appropriate legislative safeguards, overseen by established school boards, staffed by accredited teachers, and so on and so on—to make it sound more reasonable to Middle Ontario. But it was reasonable to me from the start.