Lesson From The North: Canadian Catholic Schools Get Public Funds – And Public Regulations

When will religious organizations learn that they just can’t have it both ways? If they’re going to accept government funding, then they’re also going to have to accept government conditions that come with those funds.

Religious schools in the United States often look for government handouts, but as Catholic schools in the Canadian province of Ontario recently discovered, sometimes government money comes with unwanted strings.

Ontario is close to passing an anti-bullying law that would establish a zero tolerance policy in elementary and secondary schools for sexual assault, attacks based on gender and abuse stemming from homophobia.

The law would also require all schools to allow the creation of gay-straight student alliances. That provision has the Roman Catholic hierarchy in a tizzy.

According to the Toronto Globe and Mail, the Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Ontario expressed “serious concerns” about “certain aspects” of the measure. While the bishops noted that bullying is “unacceptable,” Catholic organizations will fight bullying “in a way that is in accord with our faith,” the assembly said. 

Archbishop of Toronto Thomas Collins, president of the assembly, called the bill an attack on “religious freedom” (sound familiar?), and he questioned why the gay-straight alliance model should be considered the best solution for ending anti-gay bullying. 

Meanwhile, a Catholic school trustee group said permitting the word “gay” in student club names would be a “distraction,” according to the Toronto Star.

Catholic leaders are welcome to complain all they like, but they don’t have strong footing here. Unlike in the United States, where private schools historically haven’t been eligible for government money and have remained independent of many government regulations, the Catholic “separate” schools in Ontario receive about $7 billion (Canadian) annually courtesy of taxpayers.

Now it seems that the bishops’ fuss over the anti-bullying bill has Catholic schools in hot water with those very taxpayers. A poll conducted this week showed 48 percent of Ontario residents oppose public funding of Catholic schools, the Star reported. 

“The genie is absolutely out of the bottle, and the public is demanding a conversation about modernizing our public school system,” Green Party Leader Mike Schreiner said, according to the Star.

When will religious organizations learn that they just can’t have it both ways? If they’re going to accept government funding, then they’re also going to have to accept government conditions that come with those funds. If they can’t play by the rules, then they can’t have the money.

But if religious schools in the U.S. do insist on seeking public dollars, they should keep in mind that one day they could end up in the same position as Ontario’s Catholic schools.

Let this situation in Canada serve as a warning to religious schools in America: beware governments bearing gifts.