On February 17, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously dismissed the appeal of two Quebec parents who requested that their children be exempted from the mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture Program, offered in Quebec schools since 2008.
The parents, identified only by their initials, S.L. and D.J., said that the program interfered with their ability to pass on the Catholic religion to their children, and that exposing their children to various religions was confusing for them.
The program is taught throughout elementary and secondary school (grades 1-11) and covers Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, aboriginal and other beliefs. All students in the province, including children who are home-schooled, are required to take it.
“Exposing children to a comprehensive presentation of various religions without forcing the children to join them does not constitute an indoctrination of students that would infringe the freedom of religion,” wrote Justice Marie Deschamps in the majority report on behalf of seven of the nine justices. “Furthermore, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society.”
As many as 2,000 parents had requested that their children be exempted from the course, but their requests were denied by both local school boards and the Quebec Ministry of Education. The parents’ appeal had been rejected by the Quebec Superior Court in 2009 and the Court of Appeal of Quebec in 2010.
Seven groups had presented arguments as interveners in support of the parents, including Christian Legal Fellowship; Canadian Civil Liberties Association; Coalition pour la liberte en education; Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC); Regroupement Chretien pour le droit parental en education; and Canadian Council of Christian Charities/Canadian Catholic School Trustees’ Association.
The parents expressed their disappointment with the decision. “As a parent, I feel like I have a right to a say in the education of my children,” the mother told Life Site News.
Jean-Yves Cote, the family’s lawyer at the trial, said that, as a result of the ruling, “the state is now in a position to impose in the public schools an ideology that doesn’t correspond to the parent’s faith.”
In a news release, the Institute of Marriage and Family Canada called the decision a threat to parental rights: “This is a disappointing decision. Parents are the primary educators of their children in all regards and must be allowed to both know what is being taught in their child’s classroom and remove their children from classes as they see fit.”
The Catholic Civil Rights League noted that Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom, the Quebec Civil Code and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights all affirm “the rights of parents as first educators” but that “The overall impact of the court’s decision enlarges the state’s role into family autonomy.”
“We are disappointed with the decision,” stated Don Hutchinson, EFC Vice-President and General Legal Counsel. “Historically, Canadian parents have had the right, affirmed by the courts, to teach morality and religion to their children from their perspective, or decide who will do so on their behalf, without government interference.”
The Supreme Court’s decision stressed the neutrality of the state in regards to religion and determined that the program was religiously neutral and designed only to teach toleration. However, commentator Barbara Kay, writing in The National Post, argued that teaching that “all religions are…equally valid” is not religiously neutral. She noted that one activity in the program encourages students to invent their own religions.
Kay also suggested that it was paradoxical for the government to promote diversity by insisting on “a one-size-fits all program of education about religion.”
The court decision stated that the couple had failed to prove objectively that the ERC Program infringed on their freedom of religion or “interfered with their ability to pass their faith on to their children.” However, in its intervention, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association argued that the onus should have been on the state to prove that its program doesn’t infringe freedom of religion, rather than on parents to prove that it does. In putting the onus on the parents, the decision seems to make the state rather than parents the primary educator of children.
In its response to the decision, the EFC noted that the Supreme Court did not even address the issue of parental rights and responsibilities in educating their children. Instead, the court decision was based on the lack of evidence that the program had negatively influenced the children.
In a minority report, two of the nine justices made precisely that point. Justice Louis LeBel, writing on behalf of himself Justice Morris Fish, noted that the only evidence the plaintiffs had been allowed to present were a program outline and a textbook. They continued, “In its current form, the program says little about the actual content of the teaching and the approach that teachers will actually take in dealing with their students… It is not really possible to assess what the program’s implementation will actually mean.” The minority report concluded that the program might, in fact, infringe the parents’ rights and religious freedom and that a further court challenge could be possible once there is more evidence on how the course is taught.
EFC Legal Counsel Faye Sonier stated that because of the minority report, “The Court has left the door open to a similar case returning to the court if an objective infringement of rights can be demonstrated… What is troubling about the decision is that the Court could have dealt with the issue instead of setting it up for the potential to return in… four to seven years… after somebody has the objective evidence of their rights being violated by the program.”
Jean-Morse Chevrier, president of the Catholic Parents Association of Quebec and a director with the Catholic Civil Rights League, said it would be difficult to prove harm “on the psychological level and the spiritual level,” and added, “Once the damage is done, it’s not that easy to undo.”
For another perspective on this issue, see the blog post by Regent College professor John Stackhouse here.