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International | Newfoundland votes to end church control of public schools

Issue: "The persecuted church," Nov. 1, 1997

For 270 years Newfoundland schools have been controlled by Catholic and Protestant churches. Nowhere else in Canada have Christians had so much clout for so long in a publicly funded system. In fact, the parental right to religious schools was entrenched in the 1949 Terms of Union when Newfoundland joined Canada.

Alice Furlong, a Catholic mother of three living in St. John's, liked it that way. "It's a matter of schools supporting, not undermining, parental values," says the former school board trustee. But Mrs. Furlong, also vice president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Catholic Education Association, is bracing herself for the reality that Christian influence in the province's government-supported classrooms is about to be decimated.

In a Sept. 2 referendum, 73 percent favored replacing Newfoundland's multi-denominational setup with a unified, state-controlled secular system. Advocates of Christian education charge that, when the dust settles, Newfoundland Premier Brian Tobin will have eliminated parental choice and snuffed a constitutionally protected minority right using a majority vote. "It's an astonishing mode of governance," says Mrs. Furlong.

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Currently all Newfoundland schools are either Catholic, Pentecostal, or associated with a coalition of four Protestant denominations. Schools are not administered by churches; but board trustees are elected and teachers are hired with reference to their faith. The province controls the curriculum.

Since the early 1990s the province has struggled to reduce the church's influence, ostensibly to get more flexibility in cost cutting. When negotiations failed, then-Premier Clyde Wells in 1995 called the first referendum to sanction a reduced church role. Only 54 percent approved the motion, but Mr. Wells pushed through the Newfoundland legislature a resolution asking the federal government to amend the Terms of Union. Ottawa complied.

Mr. Tobin became Newfoundland's premier in 1996 on the strength of his performance as the federal fisheries minister. In 1995 he seized a couple of Spanish fishing trawlers that were illegally harvesting turbot, earning him the nickname "Captain Canada" and maritimers' undying adoration. As the Liberal premier, he moved quickly to change the school system, attempting to restructure 27 denominational school boards into 10 interdenominational boards. But the process stalled in July when the Supreme Court of Newfoundland granted an injunction to halt the reforms pending a full hearing.

So in early August Mr. Tobin called a second referendum. But unlike his predecessor Mr. Wells, Mr. Tobin actively campaigned for the government initiative. Norm Doyle, the federal member of Parliament for St. John's East, objects that Mr. Tobin allowed only 30 days for the debate and ran an extensive advertising campaign while denying funds to the "No" side. The government's timing was good, too. There is a growing anti-church sentiment provoked in part by a homosexual abuse scandal exposed last year at an orphanage run by a Catholic order called the Christian Brothers.

Moreover, Mr. Tobin successfully defined the terms of the debate: a choice between the old, divisive, church-dominated system and a new, caring, inclusive state system. "I believe it's time to allow all of our children, of every denomination, to sit in the same classrooms, in the same schools, to ride the same bus, to play on the same sports teams, to live and learn together in the same community," he said late in the campaign. "I believe it's time to hire our teachers because they're competent, caring, and committed to our children, not because of their religion."

Hence the question: "Do you support a single school system where all children, regardless of their religious affiliation, attend the same schools where opportunities for religious education and observances are provided?" Of the 53 percent of eligible voters who turned out, almost three-fourths said yes. It was a stunning victory for the premier. Mr. Doyle, a Progressive Conservative member of Parliament and a Catholic, expects that, given the margin of victory, Ottawa will grant Newfoundland's request to amend once again the Terms of Union.

Mrs. Furlong believes that the "opportunities for religious education" will end up as generic religion classes, as opposed to explicitly Christian instruction. "If they can do this with one minority right, why can't they do it with another?" she asks. Mr. Doyle adds that constitutionally protected rights to Catholic schools in other provinces are also vulnerable.

Mr. Tobin, who identifies himself as Catholic, has rejected charges that minority rights are at risk. He insists that the changes are exclusively for the children's benefit. This is not the first time he has gambled that personal popularity would overcome criticism from his own church. Mr. Tobin, now 42, first ran for Parliament and won nearly 20 years ago as a pro-choice-on-abortion candidate.

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