Religious school funding plan takes more knocks
John Tory's plan to provide public funding for faith-based schools took took a few more hits Monday, the strongest when one his own Conservative caucus member came out against it.
Bill Murdoch, a veteran MPP for the Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound area, said he would not vote for the Conservative leader's plan, a watershed election issue for the Tories.
"I started this campaign defending the policy, but very quickly heard loud and clear, while canvassing door-to-door, on the phone, via mail and e-mail, that the people of Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound are predominantly against the extension of funding to faith based schools," Murdoch announced Monday.
"Should this come before the legislature ... I will vote against it."
Tory responded by calling Murdoch a maverick, and said he was confident the rest of the party will continue to support the faith-based schools initiative.
"Bill Murdoch is a bit like a sort of jack-in-the-box where you wind the handle for a while and eventually it pops up out of the box," he said from a campaign stop in Guelph, Monday. "If it wasn't this it might have been something else."
"I don't think you'll find this inconsistent with his past behavior."
But Liberal Leader Dalton McGuinty jumped on the news, saying Murdoch isn't the only person who doesn't agree with Tory's plan.
"There is emerging an overwhelming consensus of disapproval with Mr. Tory's proposal," he told CTV News. "People are not comfortable with the notion of taking half a billion dollars out of our publicly funded schools and devoting that to private religious schools. I think more and more it reflects bad judgment on the part of Mr. Tory.
Murdoch's breaking of rank came on the same day that a major organization took the protest against government funding for religious schools a step further by suggesting Ontario should also stop supporting Catholic schools.
The Canadian Civil Liberties Association released a statement, warning Ontario's public that a vote for religious school funding is a strike against a more tolerant society.
"If the funding proposal goes ahead, public schools could lose significant numbers of students to religious schools. If this were to happen, the public schools could no longer hope to perform their role in bringing people together," the statement says. "In time, our community could become a less tolerant place."
The CCLA, which describes itself as a civil liberties watchdog, reacted to what is becoming a heated debate in the 2007 provincial election. Tory has sparked intense debate over his stance to support funding of all religious schools in the province as opposed to funding just the Catholic school system as it does now.
To make it fair for all religious schools, Ontario should stop supporting Catholic schools too, the CCLA recommended in a report prepared for the provincial government. The report was released to the public Monday.
"As long as we keep funding Catholic schools, there will always be an issue of fairness," said Noa Mendelsohn Aviv, director of the freedom of expression project for the CCLA. "It's like the old saying, two wrongs don't make a right," she told CTV.ca.
NDP Leader Howard Hampton said the constitution protects full funding for Catholic schools, and that a responsible government would respect that.
"We're faced with a history and a constitutional reality. Rather than upset our publicly funded school system again, I think we should concentrate on funding our neighbourhood schools," he told reporters at a barbeque on the University of Toronto campus Monday.
More than 600,000 students attend Catholic schools in Ontario. It is the only province in the country that completely funds Catholic schools while bearing none of the costs for Jewish, Islamic or other religious schools.
Though McGuinty has been strong in his position against funding all religious schools, Liberal Education Minister Kathleen Wynne reiterated her party's stance last week as she responded to the report.
She ruled out a constitutional amendment and vowed to "maintain the current system of governance and funding."
"Our task is not to push ourselves into a constitutional debate, rather to improve the publicly funded system that has worked for many, many years," she told The Globe.
The head of the Toronto Catholic School Board also objected to the CCLA's recommendation by saying it had spoken out of turn.
"The CCLA has ventured outside its core area of expertise, which is the law, into what is in essence a political statement," said Oliver Carroll.
"If there is divisiveness about extending funding, you can only imagine the debate about removing support for Catholic schools."
Mendelsohn Aviv said the CCLA doesn't have a position on whether or not religious-based schools should even exist in the first place. What the group concerns itself with, she said, is how the government spends taxpayer money.
"Funding for religious doctrine should not come out of the public purse," she said. "It's exciting and encouraging that many Ontarians seem to feel the same way."