Catholic schools in Ontario are requiring students to take religious courses despite a recent court decision that ruled they can’t be forced to attend.

In multiple correspondences reviewed by The Globe and Mail, Catholic school board officials from across the province have denied requests from Catholic high-school students that they be excused from religious studies on the basis that their parents are Catholic school ratepayers.

All of those students requested the exemptions for academic reasons, in hopes of spending more time on courses important to university applications and apprenticeship programs. But the boards contend that Catholic students aren’t eligible for the exemption because they aren’t eligible to attend public schools.

However, Michael Barrett, president of the Ontario Public School Boards’ Association, said all students are eligible to attend public schools regardless of their parents’ property-tax designations. “We take everyone,” he said.

Property owners are asked to designate themselves as supporters of either Catholic or public schools. While this affected school-board funding in the past, it no longer does – as of 1997, school boards have been funded solely by the province.

The issue of whether Catholic schools can require students to participate in religious programs – not just courses, but also liturgies and retreats – was the subject of a recent court case brought by a Brampton father against the Peel-Dufferin Catholic District School Board. A panel of three judges ruled in April that students had a right to be exempted from religious programs. Catholic school officials are interpreting that decision as applying only to those students whose parents declared themselves as public-school supporters.

The Durham Catholic District School Board gave that reason when it rejected Carolyn Borgstadt’s request for an exemption for her son, Cameron, who has been diagnosed with autism. He is about to enter Grade 12 and hopes one day to work in construction. The 17-year-old will need strong math skills to succeed in an apprenticeship, and his parents believe he would be better upgrading his math credits than learning about faith.

But Ms. Borgstadt said she has been told by the school principal that Cameron isn’t entitled to an exemption. “I feel that my son has been cheated,” she said. “It’s 70 minutes every day for an entire semester. Nobody needs that much religion, particularly when you’re talking about a child who’s struggling in the school.”

Unless they are granted an exemption, students attending publicly funded Catholic high schools are expected to take four religion courses, one at each grade level. Once a semester, for 70 minutes a day, they learn about the Catholic faith as well as other world religions.

London-resident Sam Dias sought an exemption for his daughter, Marissa, after she expressed concern that a religious course would distract from her math and science courses. Marissa will be entering Grade 9 at Saint André Bessette Catholic Secondary School this fall, and hopes to get into a competitive science undergraduate program when she graduates high school.

Her application for an exemption was denied, even after her father changed his tax designation to become a public-school supporter. “I’m angry,” Mr. Dias said. “They are trying to pull the wool over my eyes.”

Linda Staudt, director of the London Catholic District School Board, pointed to a section of the Ontario Education Act that says students eligible to attend a public high school cannot be required to take part in religious programs. That group, she wrote in an e-mail, does not include Catholic students whose parents designate themselves Catholic school supporters on property tax statements.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Education declined to comment on individual cases and pointed to the Education Act.

The ministry or the courts may soon be forced to decide the issue as Catholic schools reject requests for exemptions so regularly that Kyle Naylor has developed a website designed to help parents advocate for their children. Mr. Naylor, a parent from Midland, Ont., said he advises parents to get their tax designation changed and to get documents supporting their status as public-school supporters.

Ricardo Barbo spent most of last school year trying to win an exemption for his son so he could focus on getting top marks for his university applications. He applied to change his tax designation in January, but he was told by the Ottawa Catholic School Board that until the tax designation was official his son would be required to take a religion credit.

Mr. Barbo’s son didn’t get into his top-choice university program, and his father regrets that he wasn’t able to spend the time studying in the library instead.

“It had nothing to do with religion, nothing against the courses or what was being taught,” Mr. Barbo said. “It was simply about my son’s dedication and getting into his goal university.”

The Globe and Mail
Published Tuesday, Aug. 12 2014, 3:00 AM EDT
Last updated Tuesday, Aug. 12 2014, 4:52 AM EDT