REGINA — Saskatchewan’s Appeal Court is to start hearing arguments today about whether mistakes were made by a judge who ruled the province can’t fund non-Catholic students attending Catholic schools.
The 2017 decision caused concern among parents and with former premier Brad Wall, who at the time warned it could lead to over-populated public schools and could threaten to empty some Catholic schools.
In the ruling, Justice Donald Layh said the key issue was a policy of funding separate schools based solely on student enrolment without regard to the students’ religion.
He concluded that provincial funding for non-minority-faith students attending separate schools infringes on religious neutrality and equality rights.
The province argued in its appeal of Layh’s decision that applying the ruling would resultn religious segregation.
Five judges with the province’s top court are to listen to two days of hearings. The province is to present its case first.
Dwight Newman, who teaches law at the University of Saskatchewan, says he wouldn’t be surprised if the case ends up in the Supreme Court.
“These questions on how to read religious freedom today, alongside other parts of the Constitution, are a challenging legal question.”
He says the province wants to win in court, so it doesn’t need to rely on the notwithstanding clause in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to keep funding students who attend Catholic schools, regardless of their religion.
The Saskatchewan Catholic School Boards Association believes the charter is being used to force the government to discriminate based on religion.
The Alberta Catholic School Trustees’ Association and the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association are interveners in the appeal and are to present their arguments in court. Both provinces fund separate Catholic schools.
The dispute began in 2003 when the Yorkdale School Division, now called the Good Spirit School Division, shuttered its kindergarten-to-Grade 8 school in the town of Theodore because of declining enrolment.
The division planned to bus its 42 students to the community of Springside, 17 kilometres away.
In response, a local group created its own Catholic school division and opened St. Theodore Roman Catholic School.
Good Spirit School Division filed a lawsuit in which it argued that the new school division was not created to serve the community’s Catholics, but rather to prevent students from being bused to a neighbouring town.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press