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Holy smoke! Saskatchewan court's Catholic education ruling is a bombshell

The Bennett School in Edmonton, Alberta

Holy smoke! The ruling Thursday by a Saskatchewan judge that the province's government may no longer legally fund non-Catholic students in Catholic schools is the legal equivalent of the Mother Of All Bombs!

In an era of declining enrolments in many communities in which separate Catholic school boards successfully compete with public schools for students of all faiths and no faith, and the public money that comes with them, the implications for the separate Catholic school system are potentially devastating.

It will be interesting to see the reaction to this ruling from supporters of often financially hard-pressed public schools, many of whom think funding two redundant school systems is unfair and wasteful, while others, like teachers' unions, have a vested interest in a healthy Catholic school system. Needless to say, the political implications in Alberta and Ontario, as well as in Saskatechwan, are far-reaching.

It was only just starting to sink in yesterday what a catastrophe this ruling could be for Catholic education both in Saskatchewan and Alberta. In these two former parts of the North West Territories, the same 150-year-old constitutional compromise led to the creation of large and powerful Roman Catholic school systems that nowadays need plenty of non-Catholic students to maintain their position in the community, not to mention their cash flow.

For example, some estimates suggest that only half of the 40,000 children in the schools run the Edmonton Catholic School District have Roman Catholic baptismal certificates. At best, then, if the ruling were to be applied here as well, Catholic education would be in for a significant downsizing and the Edmonton Public School Board would have to pick up most of the pieces. After all, a few non-Catholic parents might be willing to pay full school fees to keep their kids in Catholic school, but many wouldn't, even if they could afford it.

So an appeal is certain of the ruling by Mr. Justice Donald Layh of the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench in the lawsuit that arose in 2003 from the situation in the town of Theodore, where a public school was closed for lack of students, a Catholic school opened, and many parents transferred their children to the Catholic system to keep them off buses and close to home.

The outcome Thursday in the long legal dispute between the public Good Spirit School Division and the Christ the Teacher Catholic Separate School Division was Justice Layh's ruling that provincial funding for non-Catholic students "is a violation of the state's duty of religious neutrality" under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Moreover, he ruled, "provincial government funding of non-minority faith students attending separate schools is a violation of equality rights" set out in the Charter.

Accordingly, the judge said in his 242-page ruling, Saskatchewan laws providing per-student grants to non-Catholic students in Catholic schools are of no force and effect. He gave the province only until June 30 next year to figure out what to do about it.

Presumably the ensuing crisis will take longer than that to reach a climax, though, even if the inevitable appeals are unsuccessful. Legal appeals, after all, move at their own stately pace.

Still, no one on either side should be too confident of the outcome in the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal or after that, presumably and if necessary, in the Supreme Court of Canada. Notwithstanding confident pronouncements by legal teams, once an issue like this with strong arguments on both sides gets before the courts, the final outcome can be a crapshoot.

How could we avoid chaos in Alberta if Justice Layh's ruling is upheld on appeal?

Remember back in February, when former Edmonton Public School Board chair Michael Janz argued in his blog that the public board should set up its own Catholic education alternative? All of a sudden, this looks less mischievous and more like common sense. After all, it would, arguably, guarantee Catholic education as enshrined in Canada's original constitutional document in 1867 -- indeed, it would be much closer to what the drafters of the British North America Act had in mind than the situation that exists in Alberta and Saskatchewan today.

As Janz, who is still a public school trustee, pointed out at the time, constitutional guarantees notwithstanding, nowhere is it written that Catholic education must permeate every other topic taught in schools.

Catholic school boards with their administrative superstructures and huge budgets -- $397 million in Edmonton and $591 million at the Calgary Catholic School District, including the legal costs of fights over things like gay-straight alliances and the rights of transgender teachers -- could be absorbed into the pubic school systems with significant savings.

Naturally, this idea will be anathema to supporters of Catholic education now -- literally, perhaps. But, ironically, if the dice roll against them in the appeal courts, it could offer the best way to preserve publicly supported Catholic education.

Don't count on this suggestion being received very warmly yet, but maybe it's something Alberta Education Minister David Eggen should quietly ask his officials to look into.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Flickr/stellastella

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