B.C.’s education minister says “discrimination has no place in our society” in the wake of a former Surrey Christian School teacher going public about resigning amid being questioned about her common-law relationship and sex outside of marriage.
“We’ve been looking at this closely,” said Rob Fleming, Minister of Education, in an emailed statement to the Now-Leader, when asked for comment on the story. “The courts have said in the past that faith-based schools are within their rights with these kind of contracts.”
Fleming noted BC Supreme Court last ruled on the law in 1984.
“I think we can all agree that society has changed substantially since then, but that’s where the law stands right now. It would be up to the courts to revisit that,” he said. “However, our government is bringing back the Human Rights Commission that the old government scrapped. These are the kind of questions that the Commission could look further at.”
The former Surrey Christian School teacher, Stephanie Vande Kraats, had worked as an English teacher and librarian for 13 years before she decided to resign.
“When I was hired, I was married. I didn’t pay attention to the community standards that were there,” she said, noting they stipulate sexual activity isn’t permitted by employees outside of a heterosexual marriage.”
“When my marriage ended I was in a new relationship, common-law, not hiding but not advertising it. My principal invited me to his office and said something like, ‘We hear you have moved.’ That started the conversation. It was the fall of 2016, it was meetings and it was excruciating. It was typically me in a room full of male administrators talking about whether I had broken the community standards.”
Vande Kraats said it was “an extraordinary breach of privacy to be in a meeting with administrators and be asked about your personal sex life.”
She said Superintendent Dave Loewen had invited her to stay until the end of the year, but she chose to resign mid-year during the questioning.
“I could not continue working for an organization after being thoroughly humiliated and discriminated against. This choice was also necessary, I felt, in order for me to secure a positive reference and continue as a teacher elsewhere,” she told the Now-Leader. “I found work but I was unemployed that summer and it was an extreme hardship for my family.”
Vande Kraats says she’s not an anomaly and since she’s gone public with her story has heard from others who have been affected by these contracts.
“People don’t speak out for a number of reasons. For myself, I had immigrated to Canada and this was my entire community. It was difficult to leave. There’s also an element of shame,” she said. “And lastly, you need a reference letter. These schools have people under a barrel. I would also say I imagine this affects women quite a bit more than men, only because women are the only ones who can show physical evidence in instances of sex outside of marriage.”
Vande Kraats said she took her complaint to the Human Rights Tribunal but was informed the law was not in her favour and she is now calling for legislation to be reviewed.
“No schools need to discriminate,” she said.
Further, Vande Kraats said it’s “really curious because if this wasn’t a publicly funded school, you could sort of imagine it, churches act this way, but it’s government-funded.”
The Ministry of Education says B.C.’s faith-based schools received approximately $294 million from the province in the 2017-18 school year.
Superintendent Loewen told the Now-Leader that Vande Kraats resigned, and was not terminated or fired.
He said conversations began after she started to speak about her new living arrangement and relationship in the school community and in Facebook posts.
“Those conversations were not conversations around termination,” he said. “They were about helping us to understand what was going on, and, ‘How do you see yourself fitting into this picture. You’ve agreed with this vision, these values, for 13 years and now you’ve had a change of heart and it doesn’t look like the whole school is going to change alongside you.’”
Meetings lasted three to four months, said Loewen, before Vande Kraats “voluntarily resigned.”
Loewen acknowledges Vande Kraats disagrees with the community standards and said he’s “OK with that, but she didn’t disagree in her 13 years.”
He noted in the Human Rights Code, these rules within religious schools’ community standards are not considered discrimination.
“She was hired as a member of that sub-group when she joined and supported that perspective wholeheartedly,” Loewen said. “She selected out, so no I don’t think it’s discrimination. It’s not legally discrimination. Another example would be the local gurdwaras being allowed to hire a priest who believes and adheres to the tenets of Sikhism.”
“We believe the fabric of Canada is different groups and people being honoured, and that diversity being celebrated,” Loewen added.
Loewen added he’s “comfortable with people who disagree with those values” but hopes there can be “respectful dialogue.”
Since the story broke about Vande Kraats’ story, Loewen said the school has received “hate mail.”
“I believe people need to engage in difficult conversation but do it with dignity,” he remarked.
Meantime, Loewen said the school is in the process of reviewing its community standards.
“We’re opening that conversation, and not because of this. That discussion started over a year ago,” he said. “We’re still trying to figure that out, I don’t think we’re closed off to questioning it, and dialogue.”
Loewen said he doesn’t believes it’s an issue that religious schools have these standards and receive public funding.
“I understand there can be disagreement on this,” he continued. “It speaks to what you see as a pluralistic society and how that works. The Arc foundation gets funding to write [sexual orientation and gender identity] curriculum and they’re a non-profit. It strengthens their voice in society. Surrey Christian School also gets funding and that strengthens our voice in civil society. Indigenous language programs also get funding, which of course strengthens their voice.”
He said removing funding and grants “lessens our ability to contribute to the common good,” highlighting the various charitable work the school does in the city.
Loewen also noted religious schools in B.C. save the public school system $431 million a year by taking in students who would otherwise be in public schools, which is more than the funding they receive from the province.