Canada’s Catholic School Students Can Opt Out of Religion

by Bradley Eli, M.Div., Ma.Th.  •  •  June 15, 2017   

Paul Champ: "Teenagers have minds of their own"

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TORONTO ( - Students at Ontario's Catholic high schools can opt out of religion classes and ceremonies, according to a settlement of a human rights complaint.

A non-Catholic student filed an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal complaint last year against the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic District School Board and the Ontario Catholic School Trustees' Associates (OCSTA), saying she felt pressured to attend religion class her senior year.

The case was settled privately with the terms that the Catholic school district amend its policies to allow any student for any reason to opt-out of any religious class or ceremony without question or delay. 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 complaint was lodged in 2016 by Claudia Sorgini, a secular student who refused to take a religion class at St. Theresa's High School in Midland, Ontario. She was granted an exemption but claimed she felt pressured by the school to attend the religion class. She filed the complaint, she said, so that other students wouldn't be similarly pressured.

After the case was settled privately, Sorgini's lawyer, Paul Champ, commented on the terms of the settlement. "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."

Mr. Champ argues that students, who are enrolled in Catholic school by their parents have the right to skip such classes when their own religious beliefs change. "Teenagers have minds of their own, and they can arrive at their own opinions about their religious beliefs or creed," said Champ. "If they, at that age, don't want to take religious programs, they have a right under the Education Act to be exempt."

The province of Ontario offers Catholic schools funding on a per pupil basis. As enrollment has been declining, many Catholic schools districts have opened up enrollment to non-Catholic students at both the elementary and high-school levels.

Teenagers have minds of their own, and they can arrive at their own opinions about their religious beliefs or creed. If they, at that age, don't want to take religious programs, they have a right under the Education Act to be exempt.

Until now, all students have been asked to attend one religion class each year of high school. The Education Act in the late inserted a right to an exemption from religious studies in the late 1980's when public funding was extended to Catholic secondary schools as a result of enrollment being opened up to non-Catholic students.

Catholic schools urged all students to attend religion classes and counseled students against dropping the classes. Mr. Champ believes any push for students to attend religion classes amounts to discrimination."Pressure to attend religious courses in a publicly-funded school amounts to religious discrimination under the Human Rights Code," said Champ. “Hopefully, Ms. Sorgini's case will lead to all Catholic school boards adopting new exemption policies that will end harassment of students and families who request an exemption."

The settlement requires the OCSTA to distribute the new policy to all 29 English Catholic school boards in the province. It also requires they "encourage" other boards to review their existing policies requiring attendance in religious classes and ceremonies."

Patrick Daly, president of OCSTA, asserted that the association can't force its members to adopt a certain policy but pledged to share the policy so others can "review it in light of their own current practices and policies."


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