A five-judge panel heard the last of its two-day arguments in Saskatchewan’s funding appeal for non-Catholic students who attend Catholic schools.
Representatives from Good Spirit School Division, the division that launched the original lawsuit, testified for five hours Wednesday. They argued the mandate of public schools is to provide education to anyone who walks through its doors, regardless of religion.
The lawyers went on to define the mandate of Catholic schools as providing Catholic education to Catholic students.
“The concept of separate schools was based on the idea of the minority separating from the rest of the population,” said Khurrum Awan, a lawyer representing Good Spirit School Division. “The purpose of separate schools was to protect the children of the minority.”
Awan cited a number of Catholic schools in Ontario that require baptismal certificates from students before enrollment. It argued Saskatchewan schools should be able to ask for proof of religion for the same reasons Catholic school boards can ask their trustees for proof.
The dispute started in 2003 when the Yorkdale School Division, now Good Spirit School Division, closed its kindergarten-to-Grade 8 school in the town of Theodore, about 40 kilometres northwest of Yorkton, because of declining enrollment. The division planned to bus its 42 students to a nearby community.
Community members created their own Catholic school division and opened St. Theodore Roman Catholic School.
As a result, Good Spirit argued its neighbouring school in Springside lost out on potential funding and the creation of a new Catholic school compromised Good Spirit’s ability to close future schools in a similar situation.
In 2017, Justice Layh decided the issue at hand was the provincial policy of funding separate schools based solely on student enrolment without regard to students’ religion.
It meant the province wouldn’t be able to fund non-Catholic students in separate schools.
The province appealed that ruling and presented its case on Tuesday, stating that both school divisions are part of the provincial education system.
The province made it clear it does not want education funding tied to students religions, calling it a violation of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
“The government should not be asking people their religion as a condition of accessing a public service,” said Tom Irvine, the attorney general of Saskatchewan.
Irvine argued St. Theodore Roman Catholic School is a legitimate separate school; it was created by a minority religious group and teaches religious curriculum. Irvine says that’s what makes a separate school Catholic, regardless of the students’ faith.
The panel of judges will now make a decision in the next six- to 18-months.
Once a ruling is made, the case could go to the Supreme Court of Canada or the provincial government could enact the notwithstanding clause, which would temporarily overrule the judges’ decision for a five-year period.