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Court ruling bars Government of Saskatchewan from funding non-Catholic students in Catholic schools

Good Spirit School Division No. 204 v Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division No. 212 , 2017 SKQB 109

In a Court of Queen’s Bench judgment released in April of this year, Justice Donald Layh ruled that the provincial government must end its current practice of paying for non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools in the province.

The decision began with a 2003 dispute when the Good Spirit School Division (previously the Yorkdale School Division) closed down the elementary school in Theodore because of declining enrolment. The 42 students in the area, ranging from Kindergarten through Grade 8, were to be bused to a school 17 kilometres away in Springside, but a minority group of Roman-Catholics created a Catholic School Division and opened the St. Theodore Roman Catholic School, saving the community’s school.

The minority group of Roman Catholics was able to form the school division because of a constitutional guarantee found in s. 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867. In Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario, this guarantee entitles Roman Catholics and Protestants to petition the provincial government to create a separate denominational school if they form a minority in a school attendance area.

In 2005, the Good Spirit School Division filed a lawsuit against the Christ the Teacher Roman Catholic Separate School Division and the Government of Saskatchewan over the creation of St. Theodore Roman Catholic School. The Good Spirit School Division claimed that the new school was created not to serve Catholic students in the community, but to prevent students in Theodore from being bused to Springside.

The core issue of this case is the provincial government’s policy to fund separate schools based on enrolment numbers without regard to the religious affiliation of students. The Good Spirit School Division is not opposed to non-Catholic students attending St. Theodore Roman Catholic School, but their position at trial was that the constitutional protection of Catholic schools does not include the right for those schools to receive government funding for non–Catholic students. Given that this sort funding is not constitutionally guaranteed, they alleged, it infringes freedom of religion under ss. 2(a) and equality rights under s. 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.