Religious support under fire;Briefing International

5th March 1999 at 00:00

For the second time in a year, the Canadian government has been forced to defend the existence of state-funded Catholic schools in Ontario at the United Nations High Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

The latest defence arises out of a complaint brought last May by the Friends of Public Education, citing the UN's binding international agreement on civil and political rights that no religion should get state support.

The state funding of Catholic schools is "divisive" and "a violation of our rights to equality", said Renton Patterson, a retired teacher who heads the Friends of Public Education.

In January 1998, a similar complaint was brought by Arieh Hollis Waldman, who argued that Ontario's practice of funding Catholic schools violated the country's equality charter because it gave Roman Catholics access to state funds denied to other religious groups.

The Canadian government said Mr Waldman's complaint was inadmissible for three reasons.

First, Canada's supreme court had already ruled that funding for Catholic schools in Ontario was covered by the Canadian constitution, which protected the English Protestant minority in Quebec and the French Catholic minority in Ontario.

Second, other denominational state schools were not restricted from applying for money and, third, under the constitution, education is a provincial responsibility. According to international law expert Professor Craig Scott, the Canadian position may not carry the day.

"The government is treating one religious group so favourably that others are being discriminated against," he said.

He believes that the human rights committee will not let Canada plead domestic law as a defence to a violation of international law.

The view of the committee is not binding on state parties. But, said Professor Scott, Canada would be loath to undermine international law by arguing that the committee's decision is null and void solely because Canada's courts have ruled differently.

The committee's decision could take up to three years.

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