Court rejects Hamilton dad's fight to get warnings from school board over 'false teachings'

A Hamilton Superior Court judge ruled against a Greek Orthodox dad who said the Hamilton public school board violated his Charter rights when it failed to warn him before his young children were exposed to "false teachings."

Ruling says inclusion and equity come before individual religious accommodation in public schools

Hamilton Superior Court of Justice dismissed a case Wednesday by Steve Tourloukis, a Greek Orthodox father of two who went up against the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board over whether his children could be exempted from learning about issues against their religious beliefs. (iStock)

An Ontario Superior Court justice has ruled against a Hamilton father who wanted advance notice from the Hamilton public school board of 'false teachings" so he could remove his children from classes on those days.

Steve Tourloukis had argued his rights to religious freedom should mean he could prevent his children being taught about subjects that go against those values.

Justice Robert B. Reid dismissed the application last Wednesday, saying inclusion and equality comes before "individual religious accommodations in public education."

As educators, we can't predict when a certain topic may arise.- HWDSB chair Todd White

"[The public education system], by definition, must provide education to the broadest possible cross-section of the population," Justice Reid said in his ruling.

"To the extent that the concern about 'false teachings' outweighs other advantages of the public school system, the applicant may need to seek other alternatives."

Christian advocates supporting the court challenge said the ruling was a blow for parent's primary authority over their children. The Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board said it was pleased with what it saw as a balanced and pragmatic ruling. 

Tourloukis, a local dentist and father of two, mounted a legal fight against the HWDSB in 2012 to protest his young children, then in Grades 1 and 4, being exposed to what he called "false teachings", including the study of human sexuality.

Reid said in dismissing his application that allowing Tourloukis to "isolate" his children from aspects of the curriculum would be "antithetical to the competing legislative mandate and Charter values favouring inclusivity, equality and multiculturalism."

Legal battle going back 6 years

Court documents show Tourloukis, whose wife is a public school math teacher, wrote a letter to the school board in September 2010, referred to as "Our Family's Traditional Values Letter", which requested that teachers inform parents before certain subjects were taught in class.

The letter listed issues that Tourloukis believed as "sensitive and controversial" to those family values held as part of his Greek Orthodox faith, such as moral relativism, sex ed, homosexuality and transgenderism, and "environmental worship — placing environmental issues/concerns above the value of Judeo-Christian principles and human life."

Tourloukis said his charter rights had been violated when the school board failed to provide advance notice before these issues came up, so he could opt to pull his kids from class if what was being taught conflicted with his values.

Reid recognized that the father's request for accommodation was two-fold: "communication to him of subject areas in advance of teaching followed by the permission for non-attendance by his children."

He also noted that the school board was faced with two options to mitigate Tourloukis' concerns with respect to his children, "to include or isolate. The Board chose the former."

Albertos Polizogopoulos, lawyer for Tourloukis, did not respond to requests for comment.

School board "goes great lengths to accommodate religious beliefs"

Todd White, chair of the HWDSB, said the board was "pleased" the decision and that "it aligned with their values", especially since Tourloukis' request to excuse his children every time an issue arose posed a number of logistical challenges for the board.

"As educators, we can't predict when a certain topic may arise. If its embedded in the curriculum, we make every effort to inform parents of what students are learning," he said. 

"In this case, when a topic may arise, it might be student-led, it might come up in discussion, or it might be embedded in different parts of a curriculum."

Ontario's Equity and Inclusive Education Strategy, first implemented in 2009, led to new policies in schools across the province to remove biases and ensure all students feel welcomed and accepted regardless of their beliefs.

White wholeheartedly agrees with the principles of the act. "If an unplanned topic around an LGBTQ issue arose and certain students had to leave the classroom, those remaining in the classroom who may identify as such would be left with a feeling that their lifestyle is incorrect or wrong. That's not fair to the existing student."

"We're trying to create a balance of human rights and concerns, but at the same time, we don't want any student in our classrooms feeling like unsafe or insecure in that environment."

He also urged parents not to feel discouraged by the verdict, but to engage with educators and promote mutual understanding. 

"The worst thing that this case could do is give the impression that our public board is not open to receiving religious accommodation requests," he said.

"What I recommend to families is to approach our teachers and principals and have discussions around any concerns that you may have with our curriculum or discussions in the classroom... From my experience, we go to great lengths to approve any accommodation requests that we can."

Christian advocates unhappy with decision

Phil Lees, president of the advocacy group Public Education Advocates for Christian Equity (P.E.A.C.E.) Ontario, said the verdict was "disturbing" to the organization and its allies.

"We live in a pluralistic and inclusive society, but the decision really isn't inclusive. School board policy is inclusive, and it indicates in the policy a commitment to take reasonable steps to provide accommodation," he said. "Parents have the primary authority over the learning of their children."

"Let's say [the curriculum includes] a story about an alternative family lifestyle. We'd need to sit down and read that story to our children, and help them understand that in our faith, God gives us choices. People will make choices that maybe aren't consistent with our choices, and we have to accept and respect that."

Lees, who spent 30 years as an educator himself, argues that the case sets a bad precedent for parents trying to be involved in their child's education, and not just Christian parents such as Tourloukis, but any parent of faith.

"What families are asking for is just to be informed about when curriculum is sensitive... so they can talk to their children about what they're going to learn and help them to better understand how this information applies to them as a person of faith living in a secular world."