Supreme Court to hear Loyola High School’s case against mandatory ethics and religion course
MONTREAL – Alone in its lengthy legal challenge of the Quebec government’s Ethics and Religious Culture program, Loyola High School will now takes its case against the Quebec government’s compulsory course all the way to the highest court in the country.
The Supreme Court of Canada decided on Thursday to weigh in on the case regarding the controversial ERC course introduced into the Quebec school curriculum in 2008.
The decision by the country’s highest court to hear the case sparked hope at Loyola in N.D.G. that it can still win its court battle with the Quebec government, despite losing last year in the Court of Appeal.
However, it is coming on the heels of the Supreme Court’s ruling last year that the course in no way violates a person’s right to freedom of religion — a disappointment to a Drummondville couple who had sought an exemption from the course for their children.
“We are really happy this will be heard by the Supreme Court,” said Paul Donovan, principal of Loyola, adding that the school’s case is quite different from the previous case heard by the Supreme Court. “Our feeling has always been that this course strips religion of any sense of what faith means and just focuses on the exterior practices of those religions.”
The province refused to grant the 160-year-old Catholic boys’ school an exemption, and even turned down an offer of an equivalent course, saying religion and ethics can’t be taught from a Catholic perspective.
“If religion is just cultural practices, that doesn’t tell me how that can govern your life,” said Donovan. Following the course in the secular way it’s laid out, he said, would mean that when it came to ethics “we wouldn’t be able to promote one perspective over another, and for us that’s a problem.”
The Association des parents catholiques du Québec applauded the decision of the court to hear the case, as did the Coalition pour liberté en éducation, which has been lobbying for freedom of choice.
“Freedom of religion and the rights of parents in the moral teaching of their children should produce a unanimous decision.”
– Richard Décarie
“It’s a very important cause, so this is really good news,” said Richard Décarie, a spokesperson for the coalition. Even the possibility of a split decision, and potential exacerbation of tensions, couldn’t dim his enthusiasm.
“A favourable decision — even five to four — would be welcomed,” Décarie said. “But freedom of religion and the rights of parents in the moral teaching of their children should produce a unanimous decision.”
One person who wasn’t so happy was Daniel Weinstock, a McGill University law professor who sat on the committee in the late 1990s that recommended abolishing confessional teaching in schools and replacing it with something like the ERC course.
While he is opposed to some aspects of the course, like the weaving together of ethics and religious teaching, he does believe the program is superior to what existed before.
“I just think there’s something inappropriate about publicly funded schools being used as vehicles for religious socialization,” he said in an interview. He admits he doesn’t know exactly what Loyola is proposing, but worries it is reverting to “confessional teaching through the back door.”
In June 2010, Quebec Superior Court sided with the school, but the government appealed the decision and the school then lost the appeal in 2012.
The Supreme Court is the last recourse for the school, and Donovan is hopeful it will end in the school’s favour. And he said while Loyola might be alone in its legal battle because it is admittedly “unnerving” for schools to fight the hand that feeds it, the school does have lots of support.
He believes there’s a lot riding on this decision as it reflects how Quebec will cope with an increasingly multicultural society. In light of the controversy swirling around the use of turbans in children’s soccer leagues, he said, it’s clear Quebec needs to set the tone for a tolerant, pluralistic society.
“My feeling is this course won’t promote tolerance, but will do just the opposite — and that’s a problem,” he said.
An aide to Education Minster Marie Malavoy had no comment because the case is now before the court.
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