Teacher shown door after Christian school discovers she had sex 'outside of a heterosexual marriage'
Education advocate questions why provinces fund schools that discriminate against employees
A long-time teacher at Surrey Christian School in B.C. says she was told her contract would not be renewed after school administrators discovered she was living with her male partner, violating a clause in her employment contract that forbids "any sexual activity outside of a heterosexual marriage."
"When you're enforcing a policy like this you have to ask a teacher questions like, 'Who do you live with? Where do you live? Are you sexually active? Are you pregnant? Are you gay?... It was humiliating," Stephanie Vande Kraats told Go Public, tearing up as she recalled the meetings two years ago that led to her resignation.
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Vande Kraats had worked at the school for almost 14 years as an English teacher and librarian.
She's angry that her former employer receives half of its annual funding — $5 million — from the B.C. government when the school discriminates against employees.
Surrey Christian School is among hundreds of religious schools across the country that receive public funding. Many are allowed to have discriminatory hiring policies because they have religious exemptions from human rights laws.
"It's enabling private schools that are using public money to operate to violate the human rights of their employees," says Patti Bacchus, who chaired the Vancouver School Board from 2008-14. "I think that's a big problem."
'It was traumatic for me'
Vande Kraats says she was married when she signed the Surrey Christian School's employment contract, which included a community standards policy, banning employees from having sex outside of a heterosexual marriage.
More than a decade later, after she had divorced and was living with her common-law partner, school superintendent Dave Loewen called her to his office and asked questions about her personal life.
He told her she could work six more months until the end of her contract, but Vande Kraats says she felt she had to resign.
"I didn't want to continue in a place where I already felt humiliated and judged," she said. "It was traumatic for me."
She says she also felt pressured to exit quietly, because she needed a good letter of reference. She is now working at another school in the Vancouver area.
"I think there are a lot more people who have been hurt by these policies than just myself, and I know exactly why they're not speaking up. They need those references as much as I did," Vande Kraats says.
'I don't think it's discriminatory'
Surrey Christian School superintendent Dave Loewen told Go Public, "it was sad" to lose Vande Kraats as an employee because she was a strong teacher.
"Having to have a difficult conversation with someone about personal choices is not my favourite thing to do," he said.
He disagrees that the school's community standards policy is discriminatory.
"I think the word 'discriminates' is too strong of a word," said Loewen. "I don't think it's discriminatory because it's not a requirement for people to work here. It's invitational and we're transparent about our values."
'Independent schools save taxpayers'
Surrey Christian School is a member of the Federation of Independent School Associations (FISA), which told Go Public in an email, "Independent schools save taxpayers nearly $430 million a year in operating costs and many millions more in capital costs" because parents pay tuition.
FISA executive director Shawn Chisholm said teachers "have the choice" of moving to another school, an argument that exasperates Bacchus, who writes on education issues for the Georgia Straight newspaper.
"To suggest that you can choose to go work somewhere else ... really is undermining the whole point of having those kind of protections," she said. "People shouldn't have to face discrimination in this country based on their marital status or their gender identity."
Controversial community contracts
Surrey Christian School is one of 35 schools that belong to the Society of Christian Schools in B.C., which provides its members a template for community standards policies that employees must follow.
Besides restrictions on sexual activity, there are recommended bans on things like using coarse language, public drunkenness and watching porn.
Human rights codes in provinces across Canada have similar exemptions that allow religious schools to set their own policies, if they're based on religious beliefs and their primary purpose is to promote the interests of a religious group.
The defining legal case dates back to 1984, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of a Catholic school that fired a teacher after she married a divorced man, saying non-profit religious institutions have the right to give preference to members of the group their organizations serve.
Challenges to those policies are few in number, and Go Public could not find any cases where employees had been successful in court.
In December, a former teacher and principal at a Catholic school took her case to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, alleging that she was pushed to quit because of her sexual orientation. That case is ongoing.
As a result of media reports, the Alberta government, which provided almost $1.7 billion in funding to Catholic schools last year, is now reviewing the employment contracts from all 16 Catholic school boards in the province.
A transgender man who was fired from a Catholic school in Alberta in 2008 lost his legal fight in 2017.
A Vancouver teacher decided not to pursue a legal case after she says she was pushed out of a Catholic school in 2010 when administrators discovered she was a lesbian after she asked for parental leave because her partner was having a baby.
Last June, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that B.C.'s Trinity Western University, an evangelical Christian school, could not get accreditation for a planned new law school because it has a policy demanding that students abstain from sex outside of heterosexual marriage — a code of conduct the court ruled to be discriminatory towards LGBT students.
"Interesting that staff weren't addressed in that ruling," says Vande Kraats, who told Go Public the Trinity Western decision prompted her to speak out about what had happened to her.
"I do wonder if the climate is changing now," she says.
When Vande Kraats asked the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal about her situation, she says she was dissuaded from filing a case.
"They were very sympathetic," she says, but told her that religious schools have the legal right to have discriminatory employment clauses.
B.C. religious schools get $300M a year
Surrey Christian School receives 50 per cent of the per-pupil funding given to public schools within its district.
In 2017-18, the school received $5 million in public funds — a portion of almost $300 million the provincial government allocated to faith-based schools.
Bacchus argues that people who want alternatives to the public education system can make that choice, but shouldn't have access to government funding.
"It's problematic to me that our provincial government in B.C. is providing funding to private schools that are including this kind of discriminatory language in employee contracts and discriminating against employees," she says.
Vande Kraats also wants the B.C. government to cut funding or demand religious schools change their employment policies.
B.C. government declines to comment
Go Public requested an interview with B.C. Premier John Horgan, but a spokesperson referred our request to the Ministry of Education.
A ministry spokesperson declined the interview request, and also refused to explain why the province provides funding to faith-based schools with discriminatory policies.
Communications manager Sean Leslie sent a statement reiterating that B.C.'s Human Rights Code provides certain exemptions that allow schools to have policies like the one that led to Vande Kraats' termination.
Time for a change?
Raji Mangat, a human rights lawyer with West Coast Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, says it may be time for the courts to re-examine the battle between religious rights and individual human rights.
"Society and our expectations around human rights and people's dignity change," Mangat says. "For instance, same sex marriage is now recognized.
"There are so many situations in which people are either forced to leave or told their [employment] contract isn't going to be renewed for reasons I think a lot of us, today, would find very troubling."
'This is a dark secret'
Vande Kraats hopes that speaking out will encourage provincial governments across the country to take a hard look at the funding provided to schools with discriminatory employment contracts.
"This is a dark secret for these religious independent schools," she says.
"What I've learned is that these policies are actually enforced. And they're enforced against people that have been long-time teachers who are respected. And it's very hurtful. I hope it changes."
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With files from Enza Uda