Oliver Erazo has been battling the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board since last spring to obtain a full exemption from religious courses and programs for his son Jonathan, a Grade 10 student at Notre Dame Catholic Secondary School.
Erazo and his wife initially chose Notre Dame for their children because it’s the closest to their home and garners favourable ratings on a school-ranking website.
Erazo, who now has a lawyer working on his behalf pro bono, said a court may have to ultimately decide the issue, which falls under the Education Act’s open-access legislation.
“I think the only thing they (the board) would understand is a court order,” said Erazo, whose son received a one-year exemption from a mandatory religion course, but must stay home rather than work at school during other religious programs.
Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, a lawyer representing Erazo, said the law clearly states parents can get a full exemption for their children from religious courses and programs.
“The exemption is clearly worded and it’s the law,” Erskine-Smith said, pointing out many parents across the province are struggling with the same issues.
“They’ve granted us most of what we’ve requested, they just haven’t acknowledged that they were required to do so.”
Erskine-Smith said he and his client are considering bringing an application to court that would enforce Erazo’s rights and ensure the “Catholic school board acts in accordance with their obligations under the Education Act.”
Erazo is not alone. Despite the law, students across the province are being treated differently.
Thunder Bay resident Terry Prodanyk is fighting to have his 17-year-old daughter Monica, a Grade 12 student at St. Patrick High School, exempt from a religion course so she can focus on other academic areas.
Prodanyk, who teaches at a public high school, said his daughter needs to take a calculus and vectors course as a prerequisite for a university program she wants to enter.
“She needs the math course,” said Prodanyk, who noted his family regularly attends Catholic mass and both his daughters went through the Thunder Bay Catholic District School Board system.
“(Monica) already has a heavy course load (to prepare) for university. If she was going to have to take the religion course correspondence, it clearly had to be at the lowest academic level.”
Prodanyk said he was initially told his daughter wouldn’t graduate without the religion course.
“It was written into law that there must be exemption for both the classes and religious programs for those who requested it in writing,” he said. “The question is posed, ‘Why go to a Catholic School and not take religion classes or participate in mass or faith days? Why make the Catholic schools change their way of doing things to accommodate us?’
“The fact is, they agreed to this as a condition of taking our money. They accepted that non-Catholics fund their schools, so they should be allowed to attend and not take the religion classes.”
In Erazo’s case,
The board told him Jonathan could stay home from school during morning liturgies and return upon the program’s completion, but Erazo wants his son to be able to work in the school library or office with supervision during such events.
School board spokesman Bruce Campbell said the board is only willing to provide the course exemption. “You can’t extricate the faith,” he said. “It’s woven throughout the fabric of the school. I think what he’s looking for is a public school.”
Campbell said non-Catholic students are expected to attend masses and other religious programs, but do not have to actively participate. “They sit quietly and respectfully. They can still receive a blessing. It’s really important to participate in the life of the school.”
Erazo has previously contacted the Education Ministry, who told him his exemption request was a matter to resolve with the board.
Pat Bullock, a chaplain at St. Theresa’s Catholic High School in Midland, in the Simcoe Muskoka Catholic board, said the curriculum “exudes” Catholicism and promotes looking after one another through compassion and caring.
“If they feel they’re going to be indoctrinated, it’s not going to happen in a religion course. It’s not heavy-handed, Bible-thumping Catholicism. It’s an exploration of religion.
“What parent wouldn’t want their children exposed to Gospel values and social justice? When you get someone from a fundamentalist background, the casualty in any conversation is reason. We try to be exemplars of the faith and draw out the very best in other people.”