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Majority of Canadians support public funding for religious schools, study finds
Majority of Canadians support public funding for religious schools, study finds avatar

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As debate over religious schools continues in Canadian courts and legislatures, a new poll has found that 61 per cent of Canadians support full or partial public funding for faith-based schools.

The Angus Reid Institute survey found that 31 per cent of respondents believe religious schools should receive the same funding as public schools, while 30 per cent believe they should receive partial funding.

“For those who think that, given all the changes that have happened on the religious front, the days of support for religious schools are coming quickly to an end, I don’t think that’s true,” said Angus Reid, the institute’s founder and chairman. “I think there’s a bit of a line in the sand here.”

The survey of 1,972 Canadian adults, conducted online from Oct. 16-23, is part of a yearlong project with Faith in Canada 150 to study Canadians’ attitudes toward religion.

It found that the youngest respondents, those aged 18-34, were most likely to say religious schools should receive funding. Among that group, 38 per cent favoured full funding and 35 per cent favoured partial funding. Older respondents were the least supportive, with 45 per cent of those 55 and older saying religious schools deserve no public money, 27 per cent saying they should get full funding and 27 per cent saying they should get partial funding.

Reid said he found the high support among younger respondents surprising. “In other measures we don’t find a tremendous amount of religiosity among young Canadians,” he said.

Under the Constitution, Catholics and Protestants in three provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario — are entitled to request a denominational school if they form a minority in a school attendance area. And it is in those three provinces that support for full funding for religious schools is the highest.

Quebec, which in 1997 obtained a Constitutional amendment to abolish its denominational schools, is home to the highest opposition to public funding, with 46 per cent saying religious schools merit no public money.

Last April, the Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench issued a decision restricting access to the province’s Catholic schools. Justice Donald Layh ruled that the province had to stop funding non-Catholics to attend Catholic schools. The case originated with a rural Catholic school where less than half the students were Catholic.

The province invoked the notwithstanding clause to suspend the effects of the decision and has filed an appeal.

Beth Green, education program director at the think tank Cardus, which initiated the Faith in Canada 150 project, said it is wrong to think of religious schools as an antiquated holdover.

“Funding a separate system at Confederation is not some historical accident that we have to move away from,” Green said. “It’s actually part of why we think the way we think about education in Canada.” The focus, she said, should be on “how we can create greater diversity in education, not less.”

To Green, the poll results suggest younger Canadians are unencumbered by old debates over the place of religion in education. “They’re more open to questions of spirituality and faith. They bump up against people who are different from them,” she said. “It’s possible that they’re less in favour of a once-size-fits-all public education system.”

Reid said the results, when combined with earlier findings of the Faith in Canada 150 project, show that religion is not as marginalized as had been thought.

“Don’t be deceived by the number of people sitting in church pews. There is a vibrant spirit of faith beliefs and convictions that shape the lives of 50 per cent of Canadians,” he said. Across form them is the other half of the population made up of non-believers and what he terms “spiritually uncertain.”

The divide, Reid said, “is part of the culture wars in Canada that I think are going to continue for many years.”

• Email: ghamilton@nationalpost.com | Twitter: grayhamilton

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