The school falls under the authority of the Battle River School Division in Camrose. On the feature this week, we speak with Phillip Hills, the Executive Regional Director for the Association of Christian Schools International.
The Cornerstone Christian Academy is an ACSI School.
LN: Phil, by way of background, we have a lot of listeners across the country who don’t understand how a school can be both a Christian School and be operated under the auspices of a Public School Board. First of all, I’d like you to explain that background, because it’s kind of essential to the story.
PH: Alberta has had a very generous attitude toward education, and has really had a strong emphasis on parental choice. And so a number of years ago, one of the strands that developed around this high parental choice value was: “Why can’t we (meaning public systems) embrace faith-based schools into our public systems?” And so the way these faith-based schools work is they approach a public school system; they ask if they would consider entering into a relationship with them. And what that means is that the school is subject to the authority of the School Board. The school receives full funding in the same way that any public school would. The teachers become part of the union. But the kind of caveat in all of this is that the school itself continues to act as an authority over the curriculum and the teaching program of the school, whereby they work to integrate Biblical ideas into the Provincial curriculum.
LN: So last week, word came out that the Battle River School Board was expressing concern over some of the materials Cornerstone was using in its curriculum. Specifically – and I’ll quote from a News Release from John Carpay at the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms – he writes that there’s a claim that the School Board has “ordered Cornerstone Christian Academy (CCA) to refrain from reading or studying ‘any scripture that could be considered offensive to particular individuals.'”
What’s the background there?
PH: In essence the government of Alberta – a number of years back now, I guess it’s two or three – put together a bill; it was actually the Conservatives that passed it, Bill 10. Which, in essence, specified that all schools in Alberta, whether they be Christian or not, Muslim or not, had to accommodate Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs if the school was given a request by a group of students. So that has been a fairly controversial issue for faith-based schools as they try to negotiate the tension between being true to their faith foundation and also creating an environment in their schools for all students that are safe and don’t involve any bullying or coercion. So that’s sort of the beginning of this issue. In addition to that, the Human Rights Code has been adjusted in Alberta, especially to accommodate transgender students.
So this public Christian School had a student document – a covenant – that determined the behaviour of kids in the school, and sort of sets out the values of the school. It did not explicitly quote Scripture but it referenced – in a footnote – a couple of Scriptures that speak about the kind of lifestyle that people who follow Jesus are to live. And of course one of them is a lifestyle of sexual abstinence except in the context of marriage between a man and a woman. And so the concern on the part of the School Board was that this statement might be in contravention (of) the Human Rights Code of Alberta, and so they’ve been working with the school to change that. The school had actually said “You know, that’s OK. We don’t mind pulling out that reference if some people find it offensive.” But what was lacking was written information from the Board as to exactly what they were looking for from the school, and so the Parent Council said to the School Board, “Please put in writing what you expect of us in this area,” because, of course, it left all kinds of questions about what the school is allowed to teach. And then they gave what everyone considered a bit of a surprising statement; the one that you quoted from John Carpay, which was actually written by the (chair) of the Board, based on legal advice. (And that statement is) that the school is not permitted to read or teach about anything that might be offensive to an individual. And that was way beyond the scope of the conversation about the student covenant. And so it left the school very confused as to what they were allowed to teach and not teach, and it appeared to put a chill on an educational environment that basically supported Biblical values.
LN: The School Board held a meeting to talk about this again last Thursday; lots of parents from Cornerstone showed up. From what I understand, the issues weren’t really resolved. The only thing I’ve seen in the coverage of that meeting is that the Chair of the Board, Lori Skori, was complaining the issue had become public at all. She claimed it wasn’t about the curriculum, but about those guidelines; that covenant, and a “handbook”. How do you read that?
PH: Well that might have been their intent but unfortunately, in the written information that they passed on to the school, clearly it went way beyond guidelines and (the) covenant, because the statement that you quoted from John (Carpay) was actually a statement that was written to the school from the School Board. And it’s so broad and all-encompassing that of course it incorporates the curriculum. And of course the bigger issue is “Is this the beginning of something where increasingly governments are going to be proscribing to faith groups what they can and cannot teach from their doctrine based on whether those ideas line up with current values about the nature of humanity or acceptable behaviour, etc. etc. etc?” Because of course this sounds a lot like censorship.
LN: Well the issue with Cornerstone, as I understand it, hasn’t really been settled based on the coverage I saw of last Thursday’s meeting. No final decisions here, but there’s Constitutional issues; freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. (Do you have) any idea how this is going to play out? A lot of people are saying (that) ultimately, the whole education piece in Alberta has to be settled in the courts. Is that your take?
PH: Well, maybe. Although we have worked really hard over the last three years to reach out to the NDP government. You know, we’ve sent letters; in fact, I know the community of Kingman literally sent thousands of letters from its extended community to the Minister of Education out of concern for the way that the government was moving ideologically in terms of imposing a new set of values on all schools, whether they be faith-based or not. And we really believe that the best way to resolve this is through legislation that basically acknowledges the presence of faith-based schools; that reaffirms the value of parental choice, and that allows us to continue to operate freely.
But if all of that lobbying is not effective, then the next stage is – unfortunately – to have to move into the courts. And one thing that people don’t understand – and it seems to be the case with this School Board – is that they’ve dipped their toe into a Constitutional pool by, as a government agency, in essence restricting the religious rights of a group of faith-based people and the school that they have formed. And there’s already some pretty good constitutional law that supports our freedom in that area, the most recent ruling being the Loyola case. The thing is, the Board has treated this like a Provincial issue over human rights, but Human Rights legislation protects us from each other. It doesn’t protect us from government necessarily. It’s the Constitution that protects us from the government, and as a government agency there is definitely a Constitutional piece here, and so if necessary we will have to move it in that direction. Because it is our firm conviction that what we’re doing here is not necessarily fighting for the right of one school to freely represent its faith (and) worldview. We’re fighting for the right of every Canadian to follow their conscience, and to worship as they please, and to form institutions that the government can’t interfere with that represent their values. And we believe that if the government is successful in restricting the religious rights of this small group – and basically proscribing appropriate doctrine to a faith group – it sets a precedent that is to the detriment of every person in Canada.