Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Canada May Pull Religion out of Newfoundland's Classrooms

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Canada May Pull Religion out of Newfoundland's Classrooms

Article excerpt

THERE is no question who the supreme authority is in Karen Regular's first-grade classroom, where youngsters watch a video of a squeaky-voiced puppet tell them: "He's got the whole world in His hands."

Nor in Betty Lou Slade's fourth- grade class, where lettering over a chalkboard reads: "Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us."

Welcome to the Eugene Vaters Pentecostal Academy, a K-6 school with 346 students in St. John's, Newfoundland's capital. Like all schools here, Vaters is both religious and fully funded by taxpayers.

As debate rises in the United States over the merits of such funding, Newfoundland's all-church-run school system, which has existed for nearly three centuries, is about to see historic change in the opposite direction.

Amid a fusillade of accusations by church groups that their rights are about to be trampled, the Canadian Parliament will debate in coming weeks the Newfoundland government's call to revoke the constitutional provision that established Newfoundland's denominational school system.

"Our fear is that if government has its way today, and our school goes purely public, someone's going to come here {whose parents} object to Christianity in any form," says Byron Head, principal at Eugene Vaters Pentecostal Academy. "In the US {public schools} lost the Lord's Prayer that way."

Newfoundland's system is unique in Canada. The province sets educational standards and pays the costs, but seven denominations manage and operate schools. By contrast, the constitutional church-state separation in the US prevents government from funding religious schools.

Newfoundland's denominational system was written into the Canadian Constitution when Newfoundland joined the Canadian federation in 1949. To change it requires a constitutional amendment. Led by Premier Clyde Wells, the provincial legislature Oct. 31 voted 31 to 20 to seek an amendment. That led to the Canadian Parliament's deliberations.

But before it sought the change, the provincial government won popular backing for school reform when Newfoundlanders voted 54 to 46 percent in a September referendum to remove the right of provincial churches to build and operate publicly funded schools.

In the weeks leading up to the historic vote, Protestants and Roman Catholics fought the reform in an unusual display of unity.

"We see this as a direct attack on minority rights," says Gerald Fallon, executive director of the Catholic Education Council in St. John's. "Never in the history of Canada has the government taken away minority rights."

The province says it can save C$30 million {US$22 million} annually by replacing the province's 27 school boards, operated by the Roman Catholic, Pentecostal, and five other denominations, with 10 interdenominational boards.

But church groups are adamant that the provincial government's move is really aimed at stripping churches of their constitutional rights and replacing religious-based schools with secular ones. …

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