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Theodore court decision has far-reaching effects

By Frank Flegel

04/26/2017

REGINA — The judgement that came out of a Yorkton court case involving Good Spirit Public School Board and Christ the Teacher Catholic School Board has sent shock waves through the Saskatchewan education community — especially in Catholic school boards.

Essentially, Queen’s Bench Justice Donald Layh ruled that the Government of Saskatchewan is violating a section of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms under the Canadian Constitution by funding non-Catholic students in Catholic schools, and as of June 30, 2018, such funding must end.

Layh recognized his ruling will have repercussions, which is why he gave the province until June 30, 2018, to adapt to the changes.

The Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association (SCSBA) was to meet April 24 with its legal team to review the ruling and determine a course of action. In the interim, the SCSBA released the following statement from Tom Fortosky, a lawyer and former SCSBA chair, on behalf of the SCSBA:

“We are obviously disappointed with Justice Layh’s decision. This greatly affects students and parents in Christ the Teacher School Division in particular, and families throughout the province. We’ll take some time to go over the 230-page decision, consult with our lawyers and process what this means for the division, for Catholic education in Saskatchewan, and for all of the families who choose Catholic education. This has already been a 12-year journey, instigated by the public boards, and we don’t have much of an appetite to spend more on legal defence. However, we have an obligation to stand up for the constitutional rights of separate school divisions, so we are giving serious consideration to an appeal. In the event of an appeal, a final decision would be a long way down the road.”

Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen expressed his disappointment in the ruling. “I am deeply disheartened to hear of the decision. I understand representatives from the SCSBA are taking time to better understand the lengthy written decision. I offer my full support, and that of the archdiocese, to Christ the Teacher School Division and the SCSBA as they continue to defend the constitutional rights of separate school divisions in the province.”

This case began in 2003 when the school board decided declining enrolments at the Theodore Public School warranted its closure and students would be bussed to Springside. Theodore is a community of about 340 (2006 Census), 30 kilometres northwest of Yorkton on the Yellowhead highway.

Parents did not want the school closed, however, non-Catholic parents could not be part of any petition to the government. The minority Catholic community, which included Catholic parents of children in the school, petitioned the government to form a Catholic school division. When that petition was granted, the new division purchased the Theodore School and re-named it St. Theodore. The public board did not want to sell the school to the new Catholic division and the government had to intervene to make the sale take place. It was shortly after that the lawsuit was launched by the Theodore Public School Board and included the Government of Saskatchewan and Christ the Teacher Catholic School Division as defendants.

The SCSBA and its member boards, recognizing a threat to their constitutional right to a minority faith-based school system, came to the defence of Christ the Teacher Catholic School Division. Since then, millions of dollars from the public and Catholic school divisions and the Government of Saskatchewan have been spent on the case.

It isn’t known exactly how many non-Catholic students attend Catholic schools, but some estimates are in the range of about one-third of the population in some divisions. Withdrawing funds for non-Catholic students could result in teacher lay-offs in Catholic schools, school closures, and remove from non-Catholic parents their choice of what school they wish their children to attend.

In his decision, Layh wrote that the Constitution Act of 1867 does not require the province to fund non-Catholic students who attend Catholic schools. The constitution, he said, only protects the rights of Catholic schools "to the extent they admit students of the minority faith."

When the state funds non-Catholics in Catholic schools, it violates the Charter of Rights by failing to uphold its duty of religious neutrality and by failing to apply equality rights, the judge wrote.

A quick check Friday afternoon by the Prairie Messenger with several Catholic school boards revealed some concerned parents are already calling to determine what impact the ruling will have on their children’s education. As of the afternoon of April 21, the Ministry of Education had not issued a statement.

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