In the latest addition to the debate on secularism in Quebec, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled last Thursday to allow Loyola High School to teach its students about religion, ethics, and religious culture from a Catholic perspective. The Court decided that the provincial government’s refusal to grant the school’s request to do so constituted an infringement on religious freedom. So long as it satisfies the province’s requirement to teach the doctrines and beliefs of other religions to students “objectively and respectfully,” Loyola will be allowed to replace the faith-neutral Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) course mandated by the province with an equivalent program amended to emphasize the school’s Catholic ties.
Since its adoption, the program has attracted controversy. Although the precedent set by Thursday’s ruling will grant denominational schools greater autonomy with regards to religious education, it does not imply that the ERC is a questionable or restrictive program, nor does it represent a setback in Quebec’s goal of societal secularism. By making Loyola’s exemption from the ERC contingent upon respectful, objective teaching of other faiths in the classroom, the Court’s ruling is a necessary compromise for balancing Quebec’s goal of secularism with religious tolerance.
The ERC was made mandatory in 2008 for all elementary and high schools, public and private. It stresses a strict policy of faith-neutrality to ensure that students are taught about the beliefs and ethics of world religions, as well as Quebec’s religious heritage, in a respectful, unbiased way.
Loyola’s appeal regarding the ERC is the second of its kind to face the Supreme Court since 2008. In 2012, a Catholic couple sought the exemption of their sons from the program on the grounds that it interfered with their ability to educate their children about their faith, thereby infringing on their religious freedom. Although it was ultimately denied, the fact that the request was raised in the first place and made it to the Supreme Court calls into question the feasibility of promoting religious tolerance and respect through the education system. The problem, however, does not lie with the educational system. It lies with citizens who not only refuse to educate themselves, but see the education of their children about the beliefs of their fellow citizens as a violation of their freedom.
Some people, like those who belong to the Mouvement laique québécois (Quebec Secular Movement) deny that religion deserves any place in curriculum at all. A secular society, though, is not one that extinguishes religion, but one that balances respect for religious differences with secular values. The point of religious education is not just to inform students about the world’s various religions, but to explore how belief in general functions in human society. While religious study may not be necessary for empathy or mutual respect, the role that religion has played in human conflict throughout history, and its continued prevalence in an increasingly multicultural society, make religious study an important part of academic and social education.
On the other end of the religious spectrum, McGill Religious Studies professor Dr. Douglas Farrow, for example, has condemned the ERC as “dangerous” because it introduces students to non-Catholic beliefs and pluralistic value systems. While he maintains that he is not against multi-religious education, it is difficult to believe him when, to support his condemnation of the ERC, he quotes Pope Leo XII’s statement that “it is necessary to avoid at all costs, as most dangerous, those schools in which all beliefs are welcomed and treated as equal.” According to Farrow, this is just what adoption of the ERC entails; for him, however, it is not a positive sign of cultural inclusivity, but an “onslaught against Christian civilization and quite specifically the Catholic faith.”
Given the ERC’s objectives—promoting critical thinking, teaching that people “all are equal in terms of right and dignity”—criticisms like Farrow’s are worrying, not because they point to any problems with the program, but because they highlight issues present in members of the society it was developed for. Regardless, it is ironic that he should denounce the ERC as a fundamentally opposed to the “Catholic view of spiritual development.” Besides the fact that it is exactly what the ERC was put in place to prevent, religious intolerance is not among the practices Catholicism considers as necessary spiritual development. If the biggest danger the ERC presents is that it might introduce to school children the idea that belief systems other than those of their parents can be valid, or that moral judgments may have grounds outside the “traditional religious and moral commitments” of their household, Quebec should take its chances.