Board mulls appeal of exemption for non-Catholic students from religion

  • April 14, 2014

MISSISSAUGA, ONT. - A court ruling that exempts a non-Catholic student with the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board from attending religious festivities could rock the Catholicity of Ontario's Catholic education system.

On April 4, three Ontario Superior Court judges ruled that Oliver Erazo's son, Jonathon, who attends Notre Dame Secondary School in Mississauga, could be exempt from all religious courses, programs, retreats and events including Mass during the school day.

“No Catholic school system that is required by law to admit non-Catholic students should have the right to require participation in such activities,” wrote Ontario Superior Court Justice Ted Matlow in a 16-page decision.

Erazo's case hinged on the Ontario Education Act's open access policy.

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic school board will not comment on the matter until a decision is made regarding filing an appeal. It has 15 days from the decision to file an appeal.

The Ontario Catholic Schools Trustees' Association (OCSTA) voiced its concerns regarding the ruling, however.

“Separating students from religious activities can present challenges as school boards try to balance the needs of the student with the board's responsibility to provide adequate supervision, safety and a fulfilling educational experience for all,” said spokesperson Sharon McMillan said on behalf of the trustees' association. “Catholic education is more than a course or attendance at Mass. Catholic education permeates every aspect of a school environment from the classroom to the school yard.”

Erazo's lawyer Nathaniel Erskine-Smith said many choose Catholic education for the same reason his client did — because “it is the best school in the district.” Therefore he foresees other parents across the province taking advantage of the precedent that has been set.

“The decision will hopefully resolve similar disputes for parents across the province,” he said. “I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of Catholic parents take advantage of this. I believe that 80 to 90 per cent of families using the Catholic education school system do not go to church ... that's not why they choose that system.” 

But that's not how OCSTA sees things playing out in the province's Catholic schools and adjoining parishes.

“The majority of our students and families have chosen Catholic schools precisely because of the atmosphere and the integral focus on prayer, faith formation and academic excellence,” said McMillan. “(Even) non-Catholic students often choose Catholic secondary schools precisely because of our schools' focus on prayer, spirituality and Catholic faith tradition.”

She continued by saying that parents rarely request to have their children exempt from the religious components of the school.

Erazo's battle with the school board began more than a year ago when he sought to have his two sons, one of whom has since graduated from the school, removed from religious programing and education at Notre Dame. The board obliged but when Erazo insisted his sons remain supervised at the school during Mass and retreats, and the school didn't comply, he took the case to the courts in October.

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