Public dollars don’t mix well with religious schools

Lesbian music teacher got short end of the stick when dismissed from Catholic school

Lisa Reimer was teaching music at a Catholic school in Vancouver until a group of parents found out she was gay. When complaints started rolling in, Reimer was told not to come back to Little Flower Academy, she alleges. Reimer was instructed to work from home and administer assignments online for the duration of her contract, which will expire in June.

In order to teach at the school, Reimer signed a contract agreeing to adhere to “Catholic values.” Since homosexuality generally doesn’t fall under the umbrella of Catholic values, Reimer deceitfully signed the clause, or so say those of the “She Got What She Deserved” position. Then there are the “The School is Full of Homophobes” loyalists, who argue the administration should not have caved to parental pressure, and should have granted Reimer parental rights when her partner had a baby in January.

Both positions, however, are undermined by the question of whether religious schools like Little Flower should be able to wield such authority in the first place. Private religious institutions, by distinction, can exclude whomever they like—the Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees it. But how is a publicly funded institution (according to CTV, the school received close to $2 million in public funding last year) sanctioned to pick only those citizens who adhere to its ideology when hiring?

My fellow blogger Todd Pettigrew took up this question when the Canadian Association of University Teachers began probing hiring practices at Canadian Mennonite University (CMU) and Trinity Western University (TWU). Like Little Flower Academy, TWU requires faculty to sign a statement of faith. Pettigrew writes, “Publicly funded institutions should be for the use of the public…Even if we concede that non-Christian students can enroll in places like CMU—where they are required to take ‘Introduction to Christianity’ in their first year—non-Christian faculty are not.”

The defense to this point always seems to be, “Catholics pay taxes, so Catholics should be entitled to a piece of the pie.” Fair. But when religious schools—elementary, secondary, or university—take a slice of the public pie and only let some people eat, well, that becomes a little less fair. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists—they all pay taxes too, but provinces generally don’t fund their religious schools.

Maybe we should start? Sure! Tell that to the political train wreck that was the John Tory platform during the 2007 Ontario general election. Tory, former leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, proposed to allocate $400 million to fund private religious schools in the province if elected. The plan was wickedly unpopular among voters.  Did it cost Tory the election? Maybe. But more importantly, it showed that many Canadians (Ontarians, at least) didn’t think public dollars should be spent on religious schools.

In this case, Lisa Reimer got the short end of the stick. But more than a victim of discrimination, she was a casualty of a confusing system that pits religious freedom against individual rights of citizens. If anything, it shows that public dollars and a private attitudes simply don’t mix.