"religious canadians, be careful what you wish for"

One of the things about Canada that I've had trouble understanding is why Catholic schools receive government funding. People have explained it to me, but I didn't really grasp the idea until I read this op-ed in the Globe and Mail last week.

The writer draws an constitutional analogy to slavery, and he makes a good point. (Please read before condemning!) In the present, the analogy I would make is to the US's Second Amendment, a once-necessary, but now anachronistic vestige that needs to be retired, or at least severely restricted.
Why seven wrongs don't make a right

A liberal society casts religion as a private matter rather than a public one

Clifford Orwin

Politics doesn't just make strange bedfellows; it drives obvious ones apart. So I'll be sleeping alone tonight, estranged from Ontario Conservative leader John Tory, whom I admire, and the Canadian Jewish community, to which I belong. They both think that liberal democratic principles permit or even require the public funding of religious education. They're dead wrong.

Public funding of Catholic education has been an albatross around our collective neck dating from the terms of Confederation. Some provinces provide some funding to schools of other denominations; others, like Ontario, do not. Since Catholic schools receive full funding and others partial funding or none, provinces discriminate in favour of Catholics and against parents of other faiths.

This situation is clearly unfair. The question is what to do about it. Withdraw funding from Catholic schools? Extend that same funding to other religious schools? Grin and bear the status quo, flawed as it is? Preferring the first, I'll settle for the third. The second is a very bad idea.

The Fathers of Confederation had to guarantee public funding of Catholic education in 1867 because otherwise there would have been no deal. Similarly (you'll choke on this but please hear me out), the American Founders had to compromise with the existence of slavery in the Constitution of 1787 because otherwise there'd have been no deal there either. As even the slaveholders grasped (this was the age of Enlightenment, after all), slavery was a gross injustice, a terrible evil, and incompatible with the principles on which the new republic was founded. (Famously, Thomas Jefferson trembled when he reflected that God was just.) So they inserted an article forbidding the importation of slaves after 1807, hoping thereby to set the peculiar institution on the path of extinction.

Am I really claiming that the funding of Catholic schools in Canada is an evil comparable to slavery? Of course not. But it is an evil parallel to it. In both cases a liberal society was compelled to make its peace with an illiberal practice as the price of its coming into being. Which means that just as Americans eventually abolished slavery, so, too, Canadians should end public funding of Catholic education. Will we? Probably not. The injustice isn't glaring enough, the obstacles daunting. Politicians won't address the issue; it would be suicidal.

So we will have to live with this inequity, while remaining conscious of it as such. (It was wrong for an Ontario Conservative government to expand funding for Catholic education, as one did not long ago.) The last thing Ontarians should do is to aggravate the offence under the pretense of redressing it by extending funding to other religious schools as well.

Seven wrongs don't make a right. (So far, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Copts, and Protestants have indicated their intention of applying for the funding that Mr. Tory has promised if elected.) Don't get me wrong. Jewish education is a good thing - especially for Jews. That's why we Jews should pay for it. Religious independence is a fundamental virtue of a free society. You stand on your own two feet (or kneel on your own two knees) before God, not with your hand in the public till. It's a truism that religion in the United States, long inured to self-reliance, is more robust than religion in other Western nations - including Canada.

Liberal society is by definition of no religion. It casts religion as a private matter rather than a public one. While recognizing it as salutary, it doesn't privilege it among practices that are salutary. It shouldn't offer any benefits to religious organizations that are not available to non-religious ones as well. It should treat religious schools as it does other private schools, granting them the benefits available to all non-profit organizations. A voucher system promoting parental choice in education would be a policy worth considering (not that we collectivist Canadians will consider it.) But that wouldn't be a policy that privileged religious education.

We hear that public funding for religious education would entail higher levels of accountability and more rigorous requirements of tolerance. Fine, but the provinces already possess the means to insist on these. They accredit private education, which should suffice to hold it to whatever standard.

Religious Canadians, be careful what you wish for. When parents foot the bill for schools, they will demand excellence. Where others are footing it, they won't. Mediocrity will prevail, in religious education as elsewhere. Many of my students at the University of Toronto are graduates of the Ontario Catholic public school system, and what they know about Catholicism could join that fabled legion of angels in fitting on the head of a pin.

Clifford Orwin is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University.

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