Should Catholic schools make exceptions for non-Catholic students?

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court ruling this week in Ontario, Canada has spotlighted an interesting question about the rights of non-Catholic students who attend Catholic schools. Eleventh-grader Jonathan Erazo was granted permission by the local school board to be exempt from religion classes at his Catholic high school, but it took a court decision to also earn him an exemption from having to attend school liturgies and an annual religious retreat. 

What makes this case unique is the fact that Ontario's Catholic schools are publicly funded, and thus non-Catholic families like Erazo's are free to choose Catholic schools as an alternative to public high schools. But the idea of non-Catholics attending Catholic schools isn't unique to Ontario. According to the National Catholic Education Association, 16.4 percent of all Catholic school students in the United States--or more than 323,000 children--are not Catholic. 

Some Catholic schools tout this fact as a sign of their high quality. In some school districts, Catholic schools outperform their public counterparts and non-Catholic parents choose them not for their faith offerings, but for their academics. Or perhaps they are attracted to the school's smaller class sizes, or its location, or the school's general atmosphere. And studies have shown that in urban neighborhoods, Catholic schools tend to have better outcomes for poor and minority students, including lower drop out rates and higher numbers of graduates going on to post-high school education. So for non-Catholic families, there are some clear benefits to attending Catholic schools.

But most schools make clear that while non-Catholic students are welcome, the school's faith-based curriculum still applies to them. The Archdiocese of St. Louis, for example, requires in its admission policy that "Non-Catholic students are admitted provided they and their parents/guardians are willing to fully subscribe to the religious philosophy and program of the school." Similarly, the Archdiocese of Boston has a policy that stipulates parents "must accept and understand that the teachings of the Catholic Church are an essential and required part of the curriculum." Many individual schools and dioceses have similar policies.

Taking religious courses and even attending a Mass can be educational experiences for non-Catholic students without in any way attempting to pressure them to follow the Catholic faith. I've attended religious services of other faiths and have studied other religions in an academic setting and never felt that doing so compromised my own beliefs, but rather expanded my understanding of religion. Though the experience of Catholic education may draw some students to enter the church, such a decision is not going to be forced upon non-Catholic students. 

Schools may need to make their own decisions on how best to handle the attendance and requirements for non-Catholic students in specific situations, but parents who choose Catholic schools must also be prepared for the fact that faith is an integral part of the school. As the late Cardinal James Hickey of Washington is often quoted as saying, the church doesn't serve others "because they are Catholic, but because we are Catholic." That is true for many Catholic schools today, and it shouldn't take a legal battle for schools to teach those students while at the same time making them feel welcome.

Image: Tom Wright