In Russell Wangersky’s column “At cross purposes,” on the controversy about the cross at St. Matthew’s school, he referred to our school system as secular. I’m sorry to say he appears to be correct — but is that what the people of Newfoundland and Labrador voted for when they voted on Sept. 2, 1997 to end the denominational system?
The referendum read as follows: “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?”
No reference to a secular system but plenty of reference to a guarantee of religious education as well as religious observances in our schools.
Just before the referendum vote, in an effort to make sure that everyone understood the full implication of the referendum question, then-premier Brian Tobin publicly said the following: “Let there be no doubt what government is proposing. It means nothing less than the removal of the churches from the governing of the schools. It would mean the existing Term 17, which sets out denominational rights in the Constitution, would be completely replaced. A new term, making the legislature responsible for the administration of schools and giving students the opportunity for religious education and observances, will be passed.”
Once again, there is no reference to a purely secular system, but there is reference to maintaining religious education as well as religious observances.
Premier Tobin said this in the context of a population that was overwhelmingly Christian and had some of the highest rates of church attendance in the country.
Then, the vote
Shortly after this reassuring statement, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians (by a large majority) voted to get rid of the denominational system which had become inefficient and wasteful. I do not believe they voted to eliminate their faith from their schools.
Nor — it seems — did our politicians, whether they campaigned for or against the referendum question.
Very soon after the referendum, all parties in the House of Assembly approved a new Term 17 to govern our school system. (The wording of which had been released to the public before the referendum vote for everyone to see.) The new Term 17 does not make any reference to a secular system, but it does provide an interesting guarantee in the third clause which reads: “(3) Religious observances shall be permitted in a school where requested by parents.”
It would seem that while one secular parent can tear down a cross, a group of parents who still maintain their Christian faith (or another such group) can request religious observances which shall be permitted by the school — not will or may but shall. This could be a Christmas pageant or an Easter service or both.
In his commentary, Mr. Wangersky said that the lawyers for the Eastern School District felt they had to recommend tearing down the cross because the school would lose in a court challenge by the secular parent. Is that true? Is that what would really happen?
If words mean anything, then the words in the referendum as well as those in clause three give the people of this province the right to have a robust religious presence in their schools — far more than is presently being allowed by our secular school system.
Of course, no one will know for sure until someone is prepared to challenge in court the demands being made by the secular — demands which may have a far more precarious legal footing than is usually assumed.
Llew Hounsell writes from Corner Brook.