Quebec infringed on religious freedom by forcing Catholic school to teach secular course: Supreme Court

On the recent Supreme Court ruling:

Loyola told the Supreme Court it wasn’t challenging the constitutionality of any legislation. But it was invoking a regulatory provision that allows private schools to teach their own version of a course where their program is equivalent, the school said in its factum. However, Quebec’s Education Department doesn’t consider Loyola’s substitute course an equivalent one. One reason is that the approach recommended by the ERC course is non-denominational, while Loyola’s version aims to transmit the Catholic faith, the Quebec government argues.

Loyola has said it would teach all the same content at the ERC course Loyola’s former principal Paul Donovan told the Montreal Gazette on Wednesday.

“We just didn’t want to have to suppress or hold back the Catholic nature of the school,” Donovan said.

Private religious schools in Quebec can teach their own faiths, but separately from the ERC course.

It’s the second time the Supreme Court has weighed in on the course taught in Quebec’s schools since the 2008-2009 school year. A Drummondville couple, who are Catholics, had argued that refusing to exempt their sons from the compulsory course violated their freedom of conscience and religion. But in a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court dismissed their appeal in 2012. The couple hadn’t proved that the ERC course interfered with their ability to pass their own faith onto their children, the decision said.

Quebec infringed on religious freedom by forcing Catholic school to teach secular course: Supreme Court.

Graeme Hamilton’s commentary on the fears of religious fundamentalism in Quebec:

Listening to politicians, it can feel as if Quebec is under assault from religious fundamentalists. The opposition Parti Québécois wants an observer to report annually to the National Assembly on “manifestations of religious fundamentalism.” The Liberal government has a working group to combat radicalism. The Coalition Avenir Québec proposes banning preaching that runs counter to Quebec values.

But those same legislators have no quarrel with a secular fundamentalism that has taken root in the province at the expense of religious rights. On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada sent a message to Quebec that its state-sanctioned secularism can go too far.

In a ruling affirming the right of Montreal’s Loyola High School, a private Catholic boys school, to teach its own version of a provincially mandated course on ethics and religion, the court offered a timely reminder to politicians.

“The pursuit of secular values means respecting the right to hold and manifest different religious beliefs,” Justice Rosalie Abella wrote for the majority. “A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.”

The pursuit of secular values means respecting the right to hold and manifest different religious beliefs

The ruling specifically applies to a small number of private religious schools in Quebec, but it resonates more widely at a time when governments contend with questions involving religious rights. Recently in Quebec, mosques have run up against obstacles over fears of religious extremism, and a Muslim woman was told she could not appear before a Quebec Court wearing her hijab. The federal government has taken a stand against the face-covering niqab, saying women cannot wear the garments during citizenship ceremonies.

Interference with a religious group’s beliefs or practices is justified only if they “conflict with or harm overriding public interests,” Justice Abella wrote.

… In a partially concurring opinion that argued for less restriction on Loyola, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Michael Moldaver wrote that it is enough for Loyola teachers to treat other religious viewpoints with respect; it does not have to treat them as equally legitimate.

“Indeed, presenting fundamentally incompatible religious doctrines as equally legitimate and equally credible could imply that both are equally false,” they wrote. “Surely this cannot be a perspective that a religious school can be compelled to adopt.”

John Zucchi, whose son was a student at Loyola when the ERC program was introduced and who was a plaintiff in the initial court case, said Thursday’s ruling provides crucial guidance. “This is helping the country to come to what I would call a sane form of secularism,” he said. “We don’t need to shut down one voice in the name of diversity and pluralism, but rather diversity and pluralism mean that all perspectives can be heard and be out in the public square.”

Graeme Hamilton: A secular fundamentalism has taken root in Quebec

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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