God in the Classroom

by Lois Sweet (McCelland & Stewart, 1997)

This book is a must for anyone who thinks or talks about religion and schools. It covers the broad range of options currently being used in Canada, Britain, United States, Netherlands, and France without pontificating a solution.

Lois starts off by establishing her background in small town Ontario with many Churches and a public and a separate school system. She captured the tone of mistrust between the two systems fed by biases, bigotry, and misinformation.

She traces the background of the mix of religion and education in the current systems in the Provinces, and why we are a patchwork of policies across Canada. In Ontario, she outlined the work of Egerton Ryerson in the mid-1800s when he established a system that would last for over 100 years. She then leads us through the Ontario 1984 decision to fully fund Catholic schools and the 1988 court decision that took religion out of the Ontario public schools.

Of interest is the visiting and reporting of interviews with Catholic, public, Jewish, Muslims, Sikh, and Hindu schools across Canada. She records the views of parent, school staff, school boards, and the students. The parents, school staff, and boards, regardless of religious affiliation, all make the same statements about their motives; students frequently disclosed how the motives formed little meaningful part of their school life.

She looked at Newfoundland and Labrador and Quebec which have just thrown out the denominational school system in favour of the public system, in Quebec's case one based on language.

A trip to the Netherlands where full funding is provided for all public or religious schools as long as they teach the approved curriculum with accredited teachers. She states that the Dutch consider the religious schools play an important part in the integration of the various immigrants, as opposed to assimilation of the immigrants. This integration versus assimilation Dutch experience shoots full of holes the standard argument of having religious schools to prevent assimilation.

A trip across the border to France reveals an entirely different approach. The French partially fund some religious schools but positively refuse to allow any tinkering with the public system. She notes that the French are extremely reluctant to compromise their culture and anyone coming has to adapt to the French culture, and not expect the French culture to adjust for them. For example, girls wearing the hijab headress are kicked out of school as the hijab is considered a religious symbol and religious symbols are forbidden in schools. Religious education takes place on Wednesday afternoon by chaplains; the students attend school on Saturday morning to make up for the lost time. The reader is left to ponder the assimilation versus integration question.

In Edmonton, the author examines the public school system that has adapted to religious needs by fully funding religious schools as part of the public system to the point of housing them in the same school under the supervision of the host public school principal. The Edmonton Board requires that all religious schools follow the Provincial curriculum and that the teachers be Provincially certified, a point that the author raises a number of times as many religious schools follow their own curriculum and set their own standards for teachers. She considers there is much to be learn from the Edmonton model.