The exterior of Bethlehem Catholic High School is seen in an undated photo in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Premier Brad Wall said May 1 that he will invoke the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to block an April 21 ruling on Catholic school funding. CNS photo/courtesy Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools

Editorial: Smart choice to override court ruling on school funding

  • May 4, 2017

Bravo for Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who has emerged as a white knight for Catholic education.

Wall promised to act swiftly to counteract a grim court ruling on April 20 that said Saskatchewan was violating the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by funding the education of non-Catholic students at Catholic schools. The decision not only landed a potentially crippling blow to the health and, in some cases, very existence of Catholic schools in Saskatchewan, but it sent tremors into Alberta and Ontario, which also support publicly funded Catholic education.

But barely a week later, Wall moved to invoke the seldom-used notwithstanding clause of the Charter to block the court ruling and, in the process, arouse a huge sigh of relief from Saskatchewan’s Catholic school community and beyond.

“By invoking the notwithstanding clause we are protecting the right of parents and students to choose the schools that work best for their families, regardless of their religious faith,” said a government statement.

Anyone who cares about Catholic education should applaud Wall’s swift response. If uncontested, the court ruling would have caused teacher layoffs and Catholic school closures in Saskatchewan and perhaps the same in Alberta and into Ontario, where the law actually gives non-Catholic high schoolers a right to attend Catholic schools.

Although Wall’s action applies only in Saskatchewan, he has set the bar for leaders in Alberta and Ontario should they face copycat challenges to publicly funded Catholic education. Invoking the notwithstanding clause in Charter cases overrides a court decision for five years, at which point it can be re-applied indefinitely.

In the Saskatchewan decision, the judge conceded that Catholic education is constitutionally guaranteed, but he ruled that a constitutional right to attend  Catholic schools only extends to Catholics. He stated that paying government subsidies to Catholic boards for non-Catholic students is a violation of equality rights and religious neutrality provisions of the Charter.

Although now averted in Saskatchewan, the fallout of that decision could be crippling to Catholic education if it sparks groundswells for change elsewhere.

Exact numbers are unclear, but non-Catholic enrolment has been rising in many Catholic boards due to parents choosing Catholic schools for reasons as diverse as geographic convenience, curriculum, a preference for faith-based environments and even an affection for uniforms. Non-Catholic parents may contest Catholic doctrine, but many want their children exposed to the values embedded in Catholic schools.

So using the notwithstanding clause to defend that system is a smart choice.

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