On one side was Dr. Steve Tourloukis, a Hamilton father of children in the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board system and a Greek Orthodox believer, along with his lawyer, Alberto Polizogopoulos. On the other were six lawyers representing the school board, the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney-General and the Elementary School Teachers’ Federation of Ontario.
The hearing came about as a result of Tourloukis’ filing of a legal application after he was rebuffed by the board beginning in 2010 in seeking to have his family’s views accommodated according to what he believed were freedom of religion statutes as enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Also at issue was whether parents have the right to be told in advance about sensitive topics their children will be exposed to and whether they can withdraw the children from classes if they deem it necessary.
After hearing arguments, Judge Robert Reid of the Superior Court of Justice reserved his judgment for release at a later date.
In court, Polizogopoulos charged that the board never intended to honour Tourloukis’ rights as it already had a pre-composed memo instructing teachers on how to deal with religious objections to sex education. The memo included a directive that parents should not have the right to withdraw their children from classes.
This flew in the face of Ministry of Education guidelines that instruct school boards to provide for religious accommodation and work with parents to find solutions, said Polizogopoulos. Instead, the board gave Tourloukis the option to withdraw his children completely from the public board and send them to the Catholic system, a private school or to home school them.
Polizogopoulos also pointed out the board has a record of accommodating those of other faiths, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims.
Mark J. Zega, counsel for the board, countered that the HWDSB made “good efforts” to understand what was being sought by Tourloukis, but had to operate in a “tolerant, neutral and inclusive” setting. He denied there was any violation of Tourloukis’ rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Freedom of religion, said Zega, is not an absolute right and the board could not provide reasonable accommodation of the father’s requests.
“Exposure to different views in a public school classroom is inevitable,” he said, suggesting Tourloukis had no right to impose his religious perspectives on a public and secular school system.
Allowing Tourloukis’ children to leave a classroom would also impact other children by “sending a message of non-acceptance,” said Zega. “Tolerance is a statutory objective.”
He concluded by asking the judge to dismiss Tourloukis’ application in its entirety.
The lawyers for the Ministry of the Attorney-General and the Elementary School Teachers’ Federation of Ontario also opposed Tourloukis’ application on the grounds of inclusivity, respect, diversity, welcoming, tolerance, equity, positive environments, multiculturalism, dignity, human rights, health and safety.
After the hearing, Tourloukis addressed about 40 demonstrators gathered in support of his and parental rights on the steps of the John Sopinka Courthouse.
“The HWDSB’s refusal to give me advance notice is scandalous,” he said. “What has been the response of the (provincial) government to the actions of the HWDSB? … The Liberal government actually sent some lawyers to fight me in court.”
He added, “The issue is not just about my Christian faith. Every parent, regardless of faith, race, gender or sexual orientation, has sincerely held beliefs of some kind and … the right to know what their kids are learning in school.”
Lou Iacobelli, chair of the Parental Rights and Education Defence Fund, said “we have reached a new low in Ontario when it comes to parental rights and freedom of choice in education. Both the Kathleen Wynne government and the Elementary Teachers’ Federation of Ontario have decided to make a case against parental rights … Parents should be outraged.”
He characterized what happened in the courtroom as “absolutely astonishing” and “inexcusable.” While Tourloukis and the Parental Rights and Education Defence Fund have already spent more than $60,000 in bringing the case to court — with the prospect of having to spend 10 times that amount should the matter advance to the Supreme Court — Iacobelli said the government and the school board have a bottomless well of taxpayers’ money with which to work.
(Gosgnach is a freelance writer in Hamilton, Ont.)