Parental Choice in Education: Executive Summary
by Carol Crosson, J.D. and John Carpay, LL.B
(An excerpt from Parental choice in education: Alberta’s laws protect diversity and religious freedom: reprinted with consent from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms[i])
Christian schools in Alberta are facing hostility and criticism over their statements of faith, their codes of conduct, and their moral expectations of staff and students, particularly those pertaining to sexual behaviour. Some have called for an end to government funding of Christian schools unless these schools agree to modify or repudiate their codes of conduct. As a solution in search of a problem, this hostility has been expressed, to varying degrees, by all four parties represented in the Alberta Legislature.
This hostility towards these Christian schools is not supported in law, and is based on a misunderstanding of secularism. Correctly understood, secularism provides for diversity in belief and conduct. Secularism does not require all individuals to adhere to only one belief system, or to try to void themselves of any and all belief.
In harmony with the Charter’s protection of freedom of religion and conscience, section 21 of the Alberta School Act (section 19 of the new Education Act)[ii]provides for alternative programs that emphasize a particular language, culture, religion or subject-matter, or that use a particular teaching philosophy. The Alternative Programs Handbook[iii]explains the government’s objective as follows:
Alberta’s learning system respects the right and responsibility of parents to make decisions that best suit the needs of their children. By supporting programs of choice, the province strengthens the public school system and promotes the availability of diverse educational experiences for Alberta students. Over the last 15 years, legislation has encouraged school boards to work with parents, their community, and stakeholders to provide choices in educational programming that will meet the needs and interests of students and parents.
In a similar vein, the new Education Act (which will replace the current School Act) expressly adopts the language of Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.”[iv] Section 32 of the new Education Act states that “A parent has the prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be provided to the parent’s child, and as a partner in education, has the responsibility to act as the primary guide and decision-maker with respect to the child’s education.”[v]
Asserting that religious schools cannot be true to themselves because they receive government funding is an idea that has no basis in current legislation. Alberta’s legislation does not require any school to alter or repudiate its beliefs, principles or standards of behaviour in order to receive government funding. In fact, legislation provides that these schools are compelled to further the legislative objective, rather than contravene it.
Alberta’s current legislation respects the fact that every school in Alberta, whether public, Catholic, private, or charter, has an underlying belief system. Every school imparts knowledge from a particular set of assumptions or worldview. Adherence to specific beliefs is not limited to Christian schools. Public schools adhere to assumptions and values as much as religious schools do, and have their own teachings about what they consider to be “sin”.
Those who demand an end to government funding for religious schools see their own beliefs as neutral and objective (and therefore worthy of public funding), and see others’ beliefs as somehow biased or prejudiced (and therefore not worthy of public funding). This intolerance runs counter to Alberta’s legislation, which seeks authentic diversity and maximum choice for parents.
The Supreme Court of Canada in Caldwell et al. v. Stuart et al.,  2 SCR 603,[vi]interpreted human rights legislation so as to protect Christian schools that require certain qualifications of their staff. The Court upheld the decision of a Catholic school to dismiss a teacher for not adhering to certain requirements of the Catholic faith. The Court held that schools have a legal right to demand that teachers comply with the school’s standards of behaviour outside of the classroom.
The Charter[vii]characterizes freedom of religion and conscience as a “fundamental freedom” that protects the freedom to declare, teach, disseminate and practice beliefs that are based on one’s religion or conscience. The Charter protects all individuals from government coercion, including atheists, agnostics, and those without any formal or specific belief system. Likewise, Article18 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights[viii]protects atheists and agnostics from government coercion as much as it protects theists, by guaranteeing “freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
Courts have repeatedly and consistently required the government to accommodate religious belief, for example: where a student requested that he carry a religious item with him to school on the basis that his faith called for such a practice (Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6)[ix]; where a RCMP officer requested that he wear a turban as a requirement of his faith (Grant v. Canada (Attorney General)(T.D.),  1 FC 158)[x]; and where a Seventh-Day Adventist requested from her employer that she not be required to work on Saturdays, as a result of the requirement of her faith (Ont. Human Rights Comm. v. Simpsons-Sears 2 SCR 536)[xi].
In Chamberlain v. Surrey School District No. 36, 2002 SCC 86[xii], a case concerning same-sex materials used in school curriculum, the Court unanimously agreed that secularism means religious inclusion, not exclusion:
…..nothing in the Charter, political or democratic theory, or a proper understanding of pluralism demands that atheistically based moral positions trump religiously based moral positions on matters of public policy. I note that the preamble to the Charter itself establishes that “. . . Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”….if one’s moral view manifests from a religiously grounded faith, it is not to be heard in the public square, but if it does not, then it is publicly acceptable. The problem with this approach is that everyone has “belief” or “faith” in something, be it atheistic, agnostic or religious. To construe the “secular” as the realm of the “unbelief” is therefore erroneous. Given this, why, then, should the religiously informed conscience be placed at a public disadvantage or disqualification? To do so would be to distort liberal principles in an illiberal fashion and would provide only a feeble notion of pluralism.
Recently, the right of Trinity Western University (TWU) to start a law school has been challenged by those who disagree with TWU’s Community Covenant, which defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman. In Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers, 2001 SCC 31,  1 SCR 772[xiii], the Court upheld TWU’s Charter right to maintain its education program for training teachers, without altering or repudiating its own Community Covenant.[xiv]
The greatest strength of Alberta’s education system is its commitment to authentic diversity and maximum choice for parents. That strength is now under vociferous attack.
Tolerance does not consist of using “diversity” and “respect” as slogans to attack parental choice in education, or to censor disagreements about sexuality and sexual behaviour. Rather, tolerance means accepting the authentic diversity expressed by a wide range of different schools. Parents are not compelled to send their children to a school that has a belief system or code of conduct with which parents disagree.
Parental choice in education is rendered meaningless if religious schools cannot define and live out their own mission and purpose. Catholics, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Evangelical Christians are subject to the same taxes as those who reject any or all of these religions. Alberta’s legislation empowers all parents with the same right to send their children to a school that teaches a worldview consistent with that taught at home.
If religious schools in Alberta cannot develop, express, maintain and live out their own beliefs, without being disqualified from government funding, then Alberta’s education system will lose the authentic diversity which is its greatest strength.