Quebec court affirms freedom of religion
In a compelling ruling on June 18, Mr. Justice Gérard Dugré of the Superior Court of Quebec emphatically backed Montreal’s Loyola High School in its determination to uphold the fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church on life and family issues over the objections of the Liberal government of Quebec. However, it’s far from certain that this fine judgment will stand up on appeal, especially given the disposition of the Supreme Court of Canada over the past 20 years to constrict the historic rights of Canadians to freedom of religion.
At issue in the Loyola case is a controversial course on Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) that has been imposed by the Quebec government on every elementary and secondary school in the province, public and private. The aim of the course is to foster mutual understanding and tolerance, by providing
students with objective information about the diverse moral and spiritual beliefs held by various faith groups including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, native spiritualists, atheists and agnostics.
No Christian could reasonably quarrel with that stated aim. The controversy is focused on guidelines for the course, in which the Quebec Education Ministry further provides: “To assist students in reflecting upon ethical questions or comprehending religious phenomena, the teacher
shall manifest a professional judgment suffused with objectivity and impartiality. Thus, in order not to influence students in the development of their own point of view, he must abstain from giving his own.”
Consider the implications for a classroom discussion on abortion. In conformity with the ERC guidelines, a teacher can inform students that some people think it is immoral to kill a “human embryo” (the term for “baby in the womb” in the government’s teacher’s guide), while others hold that a woman has a right in conscience to abort her unwanted child; but no teacher in an ERC class, not even in a private Christian school, is permitted to state any preference for either of these opposing viewpoints.
This unprecedented exercise in censorship by the government of Quebec does not sit well with the teachers, staff, students and parents at Loyola High School, a private institution with a long Catholic tradition going back to its founding as the English-language section of the College Ste. Marie in 1848. Loyola counts among its distinguished graduates such outstanding Canadians as former Governor-General Georges Vanier and his son Jean Vanier, the celebrated Catholic philosopher and founder of L’Arche International, a charitable agency that operates in 40 different countries to assist people with a severe intellectual disability.
Loyola High School proclaims in its mission statement that the school aims to help students “explore their religious experiences in an environment where Catholic doctrine and values are understood, cherished and fostered; form sound moral judgment and a firm will to act according to it; and develop a fraternal respect for people of differing creeds and cultures.” Loyola teachers would be derelict in their duty if they were to fail in any classroom discussion of abortion to affirm the teaching of the Catholic Church that direct abortion is a sin that can never be justified.
Last year, Loyola High School petitioned Quebec Education Minister Michelle Courchesne for an exemption from the obligation to provide the government’s ERC course on the ground that Loyola has long provided an equivalent course in comparative religion and ethics that likewise informs students about a wide range of diverse moral and religious viewpoints. But of course, unlike the government’s offering, the Loyola course also defends the truths of the Christian faith, including the admonition of Christ that his followers must “not just tolerate but love” people of other religious faiths and moral beliefs.
This Christian approach to promoting mutual respect and understanding among people with differing moral and spiritual beliefs is not good enough for the Quebec government. Courchesne refused to grant an exemption to Loyola on the ground that its course in comparative religion and ethics failed to provide only neutral and non-judgmental instruction as mandated by the ERC guidelines.
With solid backing from the great majority of parents and students at Loyola, the school’s administrators appealed Courchesne’s arbitrary decision to the Superior Court of Quebec. The Loyola community could hardly have asked for a better outcome. In his ruling, Dugré held that in refusing to grant Loyola an exemption from the government’s ERC course, Courchesne had violated not only the provisions on equivalent courses in her own departmental regulations but also the guarantees of freedom of religion in both the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In an extraordinarily frank epilogue to the ruling, Dugré stated: “The obligation imposed on Loyola to teach the material in the course on Ethics and Religious Culture in a secular manner is of a totalitarian character equivalent, essentially, to the order given to Galileo by the Inquisition to renounce the cosmology of Copernicus.”
In view of this outstanding reaffirmation of freedom of religion in Quebec, one might ask why Loyola is the only Catholic school in Quebec that has openly defied the government’s imposition of the secular ERC course.
Part of the explanation is that many, if not most, of the more than 180 private schools in Quebec are Catholic in name only. Like their nominally Christian counterparts in other provinces, teachers and administrators at these essentially secular schools have no compunction about promoting trendy moral viewpoints that contradict the fundamental teachings of Christian faith.
Among the Catholic schools in Quebec that are still upholding the Catholic faith, some are attempting to reconcile their Catholic vocation
with the ERC guidelines.
A case in point is College Marie-de-l’Incarnation (CMI), a venerable Catholic school for girls in Trois Rivières that was founded by the Ursulines in 1697. In an interview with the Trois Rivières newspaper Le Nouvelliste on June 23, the school’s director general, Michel Boucher, confided that CMI affirms the teachings of the Catholic Church within its course on Ethics and Religious Culture. He said: “The one is integrated into the other.”
Perhaps so, but this arrangement is contrary to the law as envisioned by the Quebec government. In response to an inquiry from Le Nouvelliste, Ahissia Ahua, a press officer with the Quebec Ministry of Education, told the newspaper that private schools in Quebec can only offer instruction in the Christian faith as an extra-curricular activity outside of regular school hours.
Having been informed of this statement, Boucher professed to be “a little surprised.” He still maintains that private Catholic schools in Quebec are allowed to profess the truths of the Catholic faith within the government’s course on Ethics and Religious Culture.
Boucher and like-minded colleagues at other Catholic schools in Quebec should know better. In arguments presented to Dugré in the Loyola case, Courchesne plainly showed that in her opinion, private schools must not promote Christian beliefs within the government’s prescribed course on Ethics and Religious Culture. Sooner or later, she is bound to send inspectors into all non-compliant schools like CMI to enforce her strictly secular and non-judgmental requirements for the ERC course.
Meanwhile, Quebec Premier Jean Charest has wasted no time in announcing that his government will appeal Dugré’s ruling. The case is likely to end up in the Supreme Court of Canada, where the outcome is far from certain.
In a ruling in a similar case concerning the ERC on Sept. 9, 2009, the Quebec Superior Court held that Catholic parents have no right under the laws of Quebec or the Constitution of Canada to withdraw their children from the ERC course. In February, 2010, the Quebec Court of Appeal refused to hear any further appeal from this ruling.
On June 28, Julien Grey, one of the foremost champions of what now passes for human rights in Canada, weighed in on the Loyola controversy in an article published in the Montreal daily Le Devoir. As a past president of the Canadian Human Rights Commission and the Canadian Foundation for Individual Rights, Grey has insisted: “Tolerance means enthusiastically defending positions with which one profoundly disagrees, be those positions religious, political, ethical, or other.”
It might be supposed that such an ardent champion of individual rights could be counted upon to uphold the inalienable right of Catholic parents to have their youngsters instructed in the Catholic faith. But not so. In his Le Devoir article, Grey denounced Dugré’s ruling in Loyola as “the worst possible accommodation” of minority rights. Grey wrote: “The children are the great losers in the case of the Loyola affair, having been deprived of knowing the possibility of living without religion or with a religion other than that of their parents.”
In conclusion, Grey suggested: “Instead of augmenting the degree of autonomy of private religious and ethnic schools, we should ask ourselves questions about the public financing of these institutions. Do we want to continue to finance the construction of barriers between citizens with our taxes? Without doubt, the majority have yet to be heard on this subject.”
Clearly, the stakes in the Loyola affair are fateful. If Loyola High School loses on appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, the impact could be devastating not just for Catholic schools in Quebec, but for all Christian schools throughout Canada that continue to uphold the traditional moral teachings of the Catholic Church.
The attempt by some Catholic schools to affirm both the Catholic faith and the secular demands of oppressive politicians will not work. The leaders of these schools would do better to follow the example set by Loyola High School in publicly defending the rights of Catholic parents to assure that their children are educated in conformity with the Catholic faith. And in taking this principled stance, the Loyola community should have the resolute support of every Christian school in Canada that has a reasonable regard for its own self interests.
Meanwhile, all Canadian Christians who uphold the divine revelations in Sacred Scripture as the ultimate authority on all questions of faith and morality should beware: We will all be the losers if Loyola fails in its epic legal battle with the totalitarian forces of secularist oppression in the government of Quebec.