Nathan Greenfield on religious tensions in Canada after a judge's controversial funding decision.
A JUDGE'S decision to throw out a part of a Bill designed to create a fairer system of school funding in Canada's largest state is causing a rift between supporters of secular and religious schools.
Bill 160 was designed to end the advantage public schools held over Catholic schools in Ontario by removing the power of both public and Catholic school boards to top up funds by local taxation. Grants would have been allocated instead on a per pupil basis.
But a court ruling has allowed minority Catholic schools to top up funds locally but barred the majority public schools from following suit.
The ruling exposes tensions between Ontario's two communities - the Protestant English and Catholic French. Until now residents have had to choose between the two systems when they buy or rent a house and the education portion of their property tax has been allocated accordingly. Most opted to fund public schools giving these schools more financial clout.
But Mr Justice Peter Cumming ruled that it was unconstitutional to abolish the power of Catholic School Boards to raise funds through local taxation and that public school boards should not enjoy this right.
Minister of education David Johnson has promised to appeal against the ruling. He will ask the court to allow the present funding model to be used for the school year that begins in seven weeks. "It is my strong desire that there be absolutely no disruption to school system this fall," he said.
Mr Justice Cumming found that a clause in the Canadian Constitution protected the minority community by giving it the right "to ensure an adequate level of funding to achieve the objective of equality of educational opportunity for its children".
He said Catholic schools' right to tax locally was enshrined in the Scott Act of 1864, part of the agreement between the two communities - the English Protestants and French Catholics. "In the absence of a constitutional amendment, the province cannot lawfully impinge on such rights," he ruled.
Ontario's secular schools have 1.5 million students in comparison to the 600,000 in their Catholic counterparts.
Leaders of the public boards and unions appealed for calm, but warned that the decision could create social divisions.
Earl Manners, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation, said the decision "creates a system in which the majority, the supporters of public schools, have fewer rights than the minority, the separate school boards of Ontario".
He also called on the premier Mike Harris to recall the legislature so that it can provide equal rights for public school taxpayers.
Ontarians are also waiting for the United Nations to rule on a complaint that the existence of Catholic education violates the international covenant on civil and political rights as one religion is being favoured above others.