News / Ottawa

Secular group to Ottawa Catholic high school students: Religion classes are optional

Members of a secular humanist group say they will be handing out “get out of jail” coupons to Catholic high school students advising them they have the right to opt out of religion classes.

An email from Secular Ontario said supporters “will be on public property in front of a selected publicly-funded Catholic secondary school to distribute coupons to students,” when classes finish in the afternoon.

The coupons, which look like something you’d get in a store or magazine, quote Section 42 (13) of the Ontario Education act saying no one attending a Catholic school board is required to take part in any courses or program of religious study if the parent or guardian of the student applies in writing.

The colourful coupons are bilingual and display a spoof Monopoly "Get out of Jail Free" card with the word jail crossed out and the words "forced Catholicism" written on top.

The group says that while students have the right to opt out, the classes are presented as mandatory and school boards hassle people who make the request.

“We see it as both a violation of the Education Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” said Henry Biessel, a retired university professor and member of Secular Ontario. Biessel said that when former Ontario Premier Bill Davis extended public funding to Catholic secondary schools it was on the understanding and written into law that anyone could attend and wouldn’t be compelled to participate in religious instruction.

“I object, personally, to paying taxes for religious instruction,” said Biessel.

Biessel was unable to provide a local Ottawa example of a student being denied such an exemption, but the Toronto Star reported in 2012 that a family in the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board and another in the Simcoe-Muskoka Catholic District School Board ran into difficulty getting their children exempted.

Asked how the Ottawa Catholic School Board would deal with such a reques, the board sent Metro a written statement attributed to Julian Hanlon, the board’s director of education.

“We treat all requests for exemption for Religious Education courses in High School on a case-by-case basis,” the statement said.

Regarding how the board would respond to the protest, the statement said, “We did not know about the protest, but would not do anything about a peaceful protest off school property that did not impede the safe flow of student, staff and vehicles in and out of the school property.”

Secular Ontario said it would reveal the location of their protest on Thursday.