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SCHOOL REGULATION AND ADMINISTRATION - Constitutional issues - Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

Monday, December 11, 2017 @ 10:39 AM  

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Appeal by a parent from the dismissal of his application for accommodation. The appellant was a committed Christian and a member of the Greek Orthodox Church and the father of two children who attended elementary school within the respondent Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board (School Board). One of the tenets of the appellant’s religious beliefs was that he had an obligation to protect his children from false teachings. According to the appellant, various aspects of the public school curriculum constituted false teachings. He requested that he be given advanced notice of when certain issues would be addressed so that he could decide whether or not to withdraw his children from the classroom. The list of issues of which the appellant wished to be notified included matters such as “moral relativism", "environmental worship", "instruction in sex education", and "discussion or portrayals of homosexual/bisexual conduct and relationships and/or transgenderism as natural, healthy or acceptable". The School Board advised the appellant that it could exempt the children from part of the curriculum dealing with human development and sexual health, but it could not otherwise accommodate his request. It took the position that it was neither practical nor possible to comply with the entirety of his request given the integrated nature of its program. It was also concerned that if the appellant’s children were removed from the classroom whenever one of the topics came up for discussion, its policy of providing an inclusive and non-discriminatory program would be undermined. The School Board suggested that he consider enrolling his children in a public Catholic school or a private Christian school, or that he homeschool them. The applicant then commenced an application for declaratory relief, asserting that his parental authority over the education of his children had been denied and his freedom of religion had been infringed. The application judge found that the appellant was sincere in his religious belief and that his religious tenets were significantly at odds with numerous aspects of the Board's Equity Policy. However, he concluded that the School Board’s refusal to provide the appellant with the accommodation he requested was not unreasonable. He found that the School Board had taken account of the claim of religious freedom and had reasonably concluded that any constraint on the appellant’s religious freedom was proportionate and no more than necessary given the applicable statutory objectives. He further noted that other schooling options remained available to the appellant.

HELD: Appeal dismissed. The appellant had a sincere religious belief that he had an obligation to keep his children from being exposed to false teachings. However, a sincere religious belief was not enough, by itself, to establish interference with the appellant’s freedom of religion. The appellant had not established any interference with or violation of his religious freedom. He had not provided any evidence that his children were coerced to do something that was contrary to his or their religious beliefs, that they were denied the right to manifest or observe their religion as they wished, or that his right to inculcate his children with his own religious views had been curtailed or infringed. Exposing the appellant’s children to ideas that might challenge or contradict the appellant’s sincerely-held religious beliefs did not amount to an infringement of religious freedom. Even if there was an interference with the appellant’s protections under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the School Board’s decision to refuse the requested accommodation was reasonable and proportionate in light of its statutory mandate to promote equity and inclusiveness. The appellant’s list of objectionable topics was too broad. Furthermore, given the integrated nature of the School Board’s curriculum, it was not possible to provide the appellant with advance notice.

E.T. v. Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, [2017] O.J. No. 6142, Ontario Court of Appeal, R.J. Sharpe, P.D. Lauwers and B. Miller JJ.A., November 22, 2017. Digest No. TLD-December112017002