Barbara Kay: Quebec case puts Catholic teaching in crosshairs


National Post - Monday March 24th, 2014

ROGERIO BARBOSA/AFP/Getty Images

Given the timing, with a provincial election campaign in progress, and months of tension surrounding the PQ’s proposed Charter of Values that would ban religious accessories in public institutions, the atmosphere is unusually charged for a major test of religious freedom at the Supreme Court this week. Beginning Monday, Montreal’s private Loyola High School will face its final battle for the right to teach ethics and religious culture according to its own Jesuit-tradition rubrics.

Quebec’s mandatory ethics and religious culture course (ERC), in practice since 2009, secularizes the teaching of religion according to a principle of “normative pluralism,” according to which no religion is truer or better than any other.

There seems to be confusion in Quebec’s approach between multiculturalism as a public policy and the right of the government to impose a multicultural outlook on every private individual.

(By religion, the ERC means the major religions, but also pagan animism, Wicca and the nutbar Raëlism, which are given the same respectfully neutral attention as Christianity, yet feminism is taught in a traditional proselytizing fashion as a belief system to be adopted on faith by all students).

According to Judge Gérard Dugré, who presided over the original 2010 case in which he sided with Loyola, normative pluralism is a form of philosophical relativism that “trivialize[s] and, for all practical purposes, negate[s] religious experience and belief.”

Private schools were supposed to be exempted from teaching the state’s ERC course if they could offer an “equivalent” course, an imprecise word open to a variety of interpretations. In their 2008 request for exemption, Loyola argued, “Our students are very well trained in the key values proposed by the new program, but that training is carried out in a manner respectful of the Catholic faith, and the moral values that form the cornerstone of our school.”

Quebec refused their request, on the grounds that the Loyola program would “not lead the student to reflect on the common good, or on ethical issues, but rather to adopt the Jesuit perspective of Christian service.” Such an argument reveals a complete ignorance of Christian teachings, in which there is no conflict whatsoever between Christian service and commitment to the common good and reflection on ethical issues.

But in December 2012, Quebec Court of Appeal reversed the trial decision, siding with the province’s refusal to allow the exemption. A key question is whether religious freedom belongs to the individual alone, or to institutions. Judge Dugré clearly felt institutions had religious freedoms, even though the Quebec Charter of Human rights and Freedoms assigns freedom of religion to “every person.” But if that is the case, and only individuals have that right, then parents home-schooling their children should not have to teach the official ERC course. But they are obligated to teach it as well.

Most Quebecers feel that Bill 60’s proposed ban on the kippah, hijab and crucifixes came out of a left field, but if they had been paying attention to the ERC saga, they would have seen that the Charter of Values is merely an extension of these courses. The rationale for the ban on religious symbols was, according to a government statement, that “the state has no place interfering in the moral and religious beliefs of Quebecers. The state must be neutral…to ensure there is no bias in favour of one confession or another.” That is the same thinking that went into ERC.

In S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes, a case involving a group of parents seeking exemptions from ERC on religious freedom grounds, the full Supreme Court ruled that it was acceptable for Quebec to compel Christians to submit their children to a concept of God that atheists hold. They said it would do no injury to their Charter right of religious freedom. They were wrong. The right to pass on one’s beliefs to one’s children should be inviolable in a democracy, as long as they are not hateful of others.

There seems to be confusion in Quebec’s approach between multiculturalism as a public policy and the right of the government to impose a multicultural outlook on every private individual. One is democratic, the other is autocratic. To be neutral has not traditionally meant the suppression of expression of religious faith in citizens; it has meant that the state does not assign special privileges to any one religion over others. A truly neutral state would “live and let live.” Quebec’s adversarial approach seems to say that for secularism to live, the rights of its citizens must die.