The separation of the church from the state – a principle embedded in the American Constitution, but not the Canadian – is becoming the major issue in next month’s Ontario provincial election.

Much to the disgust of the liberal Toronto Star and to the horror of the atheist Globe and Mail, Conservative leader John Tory has proposed that state funds be made available to non-Catholic religious schools. Since not much else separates the views of the 4-year-old government of Liberal Dalton McGuinty from those of the opposition Conservatives, the issue is dominant.

It’s rooted in the Canadian past. The Canadian Constitution originates as a statute passed by the British Parliament in 1867, establishing Canada as a largely self-governing “dominion” within what was then called the British Empire.

To secure the allegiance of Catholic Quebec to the new dominion, the statute guaranteed state-supported Catholic schools, thereby linking state with church, and Ontario Catholics were able to develop a state-supported independent system.

The public schools were assumed to be Protestant Christian, which in fact they mainly were through the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th. But as theories of education alien to all major religions began to take firm hold of the public system, Protestant Christians began creating their own schools to rescue their children from the secularist indoctrination increasingly practiced in the public ones.

These, however, received no state support. Why not, they reasonably demanded, while Jews, who had long run their own schools and paid for them, joined in the demand. John Tory has adopted their cause and injected it into the election campaign. The McGuinty government says no. In fact, its education minister, Kathleen Wynne, once suggestion that the solution was not to extend state support to other religious schools, but to de-fund the Catholic ones. Thus an otherwise spiritless campaign is rapidly centering on a religious issue.

All of which is very painful and problematic to liberaldom in general and to the Globe and Mail in particular. The most telling argument against Tory’s proposal – that this would mean publicly subsidizing Muslim schools where wild-eyed imams would almost certainly urge young males to donate their lives to Allah by blowing up buildings and murdering their fellow Canadians – could not, alas, be invoked. How bigoted, how intolerant, how insensitive, how illiberal – even if true.

So, if you can’t call attention to the Muslim peril, no matter how perilous, then what peril can you call attention to? Obviously, the Christian peril.

For the Globe, however, this posed difficulties. Non-Catholic Christian schools have been receiving state subsidies in Alberta and Saskatchewan for nearly 20 years. There has been a record of steady improvement in provincial testing results, no doubt caused in part by the competition the Christian schools offered. Any mention of this disconcerting reality the Globe must obviously avoid. So what could be cited against the Conservative proposal?

Globe religion reporter Michael Valpy had the answer. Something called Granville Christian College, an institution started by two religiously fervid “nuns” from the U.S., both Anglicans, who had taken over an old Catholic college at Brockville, Ont., back in the ’70s, and instituted “cult practices,” had closed down two months ago because it couldn’t get enough students.

One former student had set up a website and others were recording their complaints. There had been “emotional abuse” in the place. Some students had been made to get up in the night to be berated for their “sins.” There had also been “physical abuse” (little detail given) and “sexual abuse” (no detail given).

All doubtless very questionable, but a “national” story? Certainly to the Globe it was. For three days running it front-paged what the Globe dubbed “Ontario’s Granville College.” When the daughter of a former staff member added her voice to the complaints, the Globe ran her picture in full color across five columns, with sidebar stories demanding to know why the local press had done nothing, and why the Anglican Church was proposing to do nothing as well.

On the fourth day, perhaps realizing that nobody seemed to give a damn and their newspaper was beginning to look more rabid than the two nuns, the Globe editors finally appeared to give up.

All of which proved what, one wonders. That this is the kind of thing the state would be subsidizing if it funded Christian schools, that’s what. This was, in other words, another instance of a recurring theme. If the Muslims are dangerous, then let’s get the Christians! And why not? They all believe in God, don’t they?

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