A case involving a Canadian Christian school embroiled in a fight with the government over “offensive” Bible passages offers a warning to U.S. private schools cheering the creation of school choice programs.
Cornerstone Christian Academy in Kingman, Alberta, receives funds from the province for its 180 students under an agreement with the Battle River School Division. Alberta law allows for faith-based alternative schools as part of a publicly funded education system. Under the contract signed with the school board in 2009 and reaffirmed in 2015, Cornerstone is free to operate as a Christian school based on Biblical teaching. But the school board now finds a passage in Cornerstone’s handbook that references the sinfulness of homosexuality “offensive” and in violation of Alberta human rights laws.
In May, the school board ordered Cornerstone to refrain from reading or studying “any Scripture that could be considered offensive to particular individuals.” Lawyers with the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, who represent Cornerstone, say that demand violates the Canadian Constitution as well as precedent set by the country’s Supreme Court. Canadian law requires the government to remain neutral when it comes to religion, which means it cannot prevent people from being offended by the beliefs of others, wrote Justice Centre president John Carpay.
“Many religious teachings are offensive to atheists, relativists, hedonists, and materialists,” he noted. “This cuts both ways: The morality (or lack thereof) that is taught in public schools is offensive to religious parents. Government neutrality is meant to preserve and promote multiculturalism and true diversity, not to impose a ‘one-size-fits all’ model on every school.”
But the government has competing interests: diversity and inclusivity.
School board president Laurie Skori cited the Alberta Human Rights Act as justification for the board’s demands, noting it prohibits discrimination “because of the race, religious beliefs, colour, gender, gender identity, gender expression, physical disability, mental disability, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status, or sexual orientation of that person or class of persons or of any other person or class of persons.”
Carpay noted that the Canadian Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the right of faith-based groups to “discriminate” in order to maintain their particular beliefs. But court precedent can change, and if Canada’s legal guardians determine inclusivity trumps diversity, Cornerstone could find itself on the losing end of a long court battle. Trinity Western University officials could tell them something about that.
U.S. Christian schools do not have access to state funding, an independence that has long protected them from government interference. But school choice programs complicate that relationship. During a recent congressional hearing, Democrats grilled Education Secretary Betsy DeVos about protections for LGBT students at private schools that receive school choice funding. As a “worst offender” example, they pointed to Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington, Ind., which receives close to $665,000 in state voucher funds to enroll 152 of its 300 students. Lighthouse “discriminates” because it follows the teachings of Scripture and does not allow homosexuality or “any form of sexual immorality” among its students or in their families.
DeVos disavowed discrimination but tossed the issue back to Congress, saying her department only enforced existing law, it didn’t write new laws. President Donald Trump rolled back his predecessor’s attempt to rewrite existing law by interpreting the term “sex” in Title IX to include gender identity. For now, local public schools can set their own gender identity policies governing restroom and locker room access. But groups on both sides of the debate have filed suit, and the U.S. Supreme Court likely will be called to settle the issue sooner, rather than later.
What happens if Supreme Court justices outlaw “discrimination” based on traditional views of sex and Biblical views of sexuality? U.S. schools might find themselves in Cornerstone Christian Academy’s situation, forced to give up their values or forego government funds.
— by Leigh Jones