Friday, March 20, 2015

Canada's Supreme Court Says Quebec Catholic School Should Be Allowed Modified Religious Culture Program

In Loyola High School v. Quebec (Attorney General), (Sup Ct Canada, March 19, 2015), Canada's Supreme Court  held that the Quebec Minister of Education's refusal to grant an exemption to allow Loyola, an English-speaking Jesuit high school, to adopt an alternative to the mandated Program on Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) infringes the school's religious freedom more than is necessary to carry out the objectives of the ERC requirement.  The mandated ERC program has 3 components: religious culture, ethics and dialogue. The government insisted that all these parts be taught from a neutral perspective.  Loyola wanted to offer an alternative course taught from the perspective of Catholic beliefs and ethics. As summarized by the Court, the majority of 4 justices held that the case should be remanded to the Minister of Education in light of the following principles:
In the Quebec context, where private denominational schools are legal, preventing a school like Loyola from teaching and discussing Catholicism from its own perspective does little to further the ERC Program’s objectives while at the same time seriously interfering with religious freedom. The Minister’s decision suggests that engagement with an individual’s own religion on his or her own terms can be presumed to impair respect for others. This assumption led the Minister to a decision that does not, overall, strike a proportionate balance between the Charter  protections and statutory objectives at stake in this case.
That said, the Minister is not required to permit Loyola to teach about the ethics of other religions from a Catholic perspective. The risk of such an approach would be that other religions would necessarily be seen not as differently legitimate belief systems, but as worthy of respect only to the extent that they aligned with the tenets of Catholicism. This contradicts the ERC Program’s goals of ensuring respect for different religious beliefs. In a multicultural society, it is not a breach of anyone’s freedom of religion to be required to learn (or teach) about the doctrines and ethics of other world religions in a neutral and respectful way. In a religious high school, where students are learning about the precepts of one particular faith throughout their education, it is arguably even more important that they learn, in as objective a way as possible, about other belief systems and the reasons underlying those beliefs.
Three justices in a separate opinion argued that the Court should grant the exemption and fashion a remedy, saying:
Loyola’s teachers must be permitted to describe and explain Catholic doctrine and ethical beliefs from the Catholic perspective. Loyola’s teachers must describe and explain the ethical beliefs and doctrines of other religions in an objective and respectful way. Loyola’s teachers must maintain a respectful tone of debate, but where the context of the classroom discussion requires it, they may identify what Catholic beliefs are, why Catholics follow those beliefs, and the ways in which other ethical or doctrinal propositions do not accord with those beliefs.
 Orangeville Banner reports on the decision.