Students can opt out of religious classes at Ontario Catholic schools after complaint settled
A school classroom is pictured in this file photo. (maroke/Getty Images)
Students at an Ontario Catholic school board will soon have more flexibility to opt out of religious courses and programs thanks to a human rights settlement that could have implications across the province.
A human rights complaint lodged against the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board by a former student has resulted in changes to the board’s exemption policies and an agreement to encourage other boards to adopt a similar approach.
The complaint, filed by Claudia Sorgini in 2016, alleged the student was discriminated against when she sought an exemption from religious classes. The case was to go before the province’s human rights tribunal but was privately settled late last month.
Sorgini’s lawyer Paul Champ said the settlement represents a victory for students in Catholic schools across Ontario.
“We’re hopeful that it will send a message to all Catholic school boards across the province that pressure to attend religious courses or activities is discrimination in publicly funded schools,” he said.
The lawyer representing all defendants in the case did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Sorgini’s complaint against the board stemmed from her final year at St. Theresa’s High School in Midland, Ont., a school with an estimated population of 1,050 students. Lawyers representing the school estimated about half the student body was not Catholic, including Sorgini.
Sorgini had taken what she thought were mandatory religious courses in her first three years at the school, consistently achieving grades of 95 per cent or higher, both parties said in documents filed in the case.
In her final year, however, she learned that exemptions were possible for students who are able to attend a public high school, but who attend a school run by a Catholic board instead. She applied for one in October 2015 with the support of her parents.
Both sides agreed that the school initially denied the request and sought multiple meetings to clarify the issue, but ultimately granted the exemption within about a week of the request.
Sorgini alleged, however, that she felt pressure to stop seeking the exemption and faced reprisals once it was granted.
Her complaint alleged the school would not let her audit a science course in lieu of the religion class she dropped, making it difficult for her to obtain nominations for major university scholarships, and implied her exemption would prevent her from attending events such as the high school prom.
The board denied all allegations. It contended that Sorgini had asked to audit a science course she had already taken, adding it would have been happy to let her pursue a different course for credit.
It said it ultimately did nominate Sorgini for two scholarships based on her strong academic performance and that Sorgini was never barred from events.
The board also felt its exemption policies were sufficient and did not need to be changed.
“The board has a procedure in place for granting exemptions under the Education Act,” reads a statement filed to the Human Rights Tribunal last year. “Students that have applied and have met the criteria for an exemption have received an exemption, including Sorgini.”
According to the terms of the settlement, however, the board must now amend its policies and potentially set the tone for other boards across the province.
The board’s exemption policy will be revised to allow students to stay in or opt out of whichever religious programs or activities they wish, the settlement indicated.
The board will also develop a standardized exemption form that clearly lays out the process and provides a list of activities that students may want to be exempted from.
“Once the student’s eligibility is confirmed, the exemption will be provided by the school without delay, pressure or other adverse treatment,” the settlement reads. “Students who apply for the exemption will not be asked to provide any reasons for their request, nor attend any meeting with school or board officials as a precondition to the application being recognized and accepted.”
The settlement also orders the board to share the new policy with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Once approved and in place, the Ontario Catholic Trustees’ Association, which was also named in the complaint, must distribute the Simcoe Muskoka board policy to all 29 English Catholic school boards in the province.
The settlement requires the association to explain that the policy came about as a result of a human rights complaint and “encourage” other boards to review their existing policies.
Champ said the decision is important for the many non-Catholic students who attend Catholic schools for reasons ranging from class availability to geography.
He also argued students who may have been enrolled in a Catholic school by their parents should have the right to adhere to their own beliefs if they evolve away from religious teachings.
“Teenagers have minds of their own, and they can arrive at their own opinions about their religious beliefs or creed,” he said. “If they, at that age, don’t want to take religious programs, they have a right under the Education Act to be exempt.”
The settlement stipulates that parents or guardians must be involved in exemption requests in most cases before the student turns 18.