Students Should be Free From Religious Coercion

June 13, 2017

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association welcomes the acknowledgement by two Catholic educational bodies that certain students in Catholic schools have the right to opt out of religious programs, courses and activities, free from religious or creed-based pressure. In Public Interest Remedies agreed to as a term of settlement, the Ontario Catholic School Trustee Association and Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District Board have agreed to acknowledge that students who meet the requirements for a religious exemption under Ontario’s Education Act have the right to opt of out of religious prayers and programming, based on their right to be free from discrimination on the ground of creed.

The settlement arose out of a recent human rights complaint in which a young woman had sought, with her parent’s consent, an exemption from religious courses and liturgies at a Catholic high school. The complaint – Sorgini v Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board, St. Theresa’s Catholic High School, and Ontario Catholic School Trustee Association (Sorgini) – was filed with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario.

CCLA intervened in Sorgini to argue that separate schools’ obligations under the Ontario Human Rights Code (the Code) and Education Act (the Act) must be properly interpreted in light of values in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the Charter). Because individuals have a right under both the Charter and the Code to be free from religious coercion and indoctrination, separate school boards have a positive duty to provide an exemption to any program or course of study in religious education to any eligible person who seeks such an exemption. Simply put, students who are eligible for an exemption from religious content should not be forced to pay a price – in the form of undue obstacles, stigma, or any other adverse treatment – for having sought and obtained an exemption.

Despite this positive step, CCLA has concerns that students’ right to be free from religious coercion is not adequately protected under the Education Act. For instance, the Act requires that students who are seeking certain exemptions must have parental consent, be free of parental control, or be 18 or older.

Nonetheless, the adoption of school policies that protect eligible students’ right to seek and obtain religious exemptions without fear of adverse treatment would be a step in the right direction. We urge all Catholic school boards to ensure that this right is provided, as required by law.

The CCLA was represented by Stuart Svonkin of Chernos Flaherty Svonkin LLP.