The Quebec Superior Court has denied a petition from concerned Catholic parents who wanted exemptions for their children from the province’s mandatory relativism program, ‘Ethics and Religious Culture’ (ERC).
In making his decision, the judge, Justice Jean-Guy Dubois, relied heavily on two Catholic sources: (1) the testimony of a Catholic theologian who emphasized that the Catholic Church values instruction in other religions, and (2) the position of the Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops, who did not support "a priori" exemptions based on religion.
Even without the support of his brother bishops, Quebec City Cardinal Marc Ouellet has spoken out vigorously against the relativistic religion program, saying the course "subjects religions to the control and the interests of the State and puts an end to religious freedoms in school which were acquired many generations ago."
The program, developed by the Quebec Ministry of Education, was mandated as of the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year for all students, including homeschoolers, and spans from grade 1 to the end of high school.
In a spirit of openness and questioning, the relativist curriculum covers a spectrum of world religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and aboriginal spirituality, as well as pseudo-religions such as atheism. The curriculum presents homosexuality as a normal choice for family life, aiming, for example, in grade 1 and 2 "to bring children to explore the diversity of relationships of interdependence between members of different types of families."
The curriculum replaced a previous religious education program that allowed parents to choose between a Catholic, Protestant, or secular curriculum.
The new program sparked a loud outcry from the Quebec religious community, especially among the Catholic parents, and marches have been held in protest. Over 1,700 requests for exemptions have been submitted, but all have been refused. Children whose parents have removed them from the class have faced sanctions, including suspension.
In this case, the parents made their appeal on the grounds that the school program violated their freedom of conscience and religion. Before the case, the parents stated that the mandatory nature of the course violated these freedoms "in that the course imposes on the student a polytheistic vision of the religious phenomenon, is relativist, separates ethics from morality, and claims to maintain a neutrality in dealing with ethical questions, and interferes with the ability of parents to transmit their faith to their child."
Justice Dubois disagrees, however, stating in his decision that their freedom is not violated because the curriculum does not require the children to believe that which it teaches.
"In light of all the evidence presented," he wrote, "the court does not see how the … course limits the plaintiff’s freedom of conscience and of religion for the children when it provides an overall presentation of various religions without obliging the children to adhere to them."
The judge based his ruling in part on the testimony of theologian Fr. Gilles Routhier of Laval University who presented the Catholic teaching that religious education is primarily the responsibility of the parents, and that the Catholic Church values instruction in other religions, rather than seeing such instruction as impugning the freedom of conscience.
Further, the judge quoted a March 11, 2008 letter written by Bishop Martin Veillette, president of the bishops’ assembly and bishop of Trois-Rivières, to Minister of Education Michelle Courchesne, which stated that the ERC program is not objectionable enough in itself to warrant an exemption. Exemptions should only be given after the fact, he said, if the program is discovered to have caused injury.
"We know it requires a very serious reason to justify an exemption from a school program," he wrote. "The most serious reason would be without doubt the violation of the freedom of conscience, which is a fundamental right. The program in itself does not seem to us to be vulnerable to such a dispute a priori [before the fact]. It is rather a posteriori [after the fact], based on experience, that a demand for exemption could in our view become admissible in cases where an injury might be serious enough."
Based on this evidence from Fr. Routhier and the bishops, the judge wrote, "the court does not see how a Catholic child who attends the ERC course could be violated in his conscience and his religion. Even the leaders of the Catholic Church admit the validity of an objective presentation of other religions."
"While the school presents various religions in the ERC program, that does not mean that the child is put in a obligatory or coercive situation," he wrote. "It is up to parents and pastors of the Catholic Church, in the case of the plaintiffs, to ensure their children understand that the religious precepts of Catholicism to which they belong, can be implemented in a free and enlightened way while recognizing the existence of other religions."
Montreal’s Loyola Catholic High School, a private Catholic boys’ school, presented its case against the mandatory ERC curriculum in June, and awaits the court’s decision. Loyola was also refused an exemption, despite the fact that they have had a required study of world religions in their program for twelve years.
Principal Paul Donovan wrote in a letter to the Montreal Gazette that Loyola was willing to offer the program in a way more in line with the school’s Catholic and Jesuit identity, but the Ministry objected to the Catholic context. "We were informed that these things cannot be taught ‘according to ministerial expectation’ in a Catholic context," he wrote. "Our question to the courts, since the ministry would not talk with us, is quite simply, Why not?"
According to Daniel Weinstock, a professor who consulted in the drafting of the ERC, one faith should not be given preference to another in religious instruction. "Part of the mandate of the course is to present religion in an even-handed way," he wrote in a recent MacLeans magazine report. "If a school has as its guiding intention to inculcate children into the Catholic faith, it clearly means a part of their mandate is not to present all religions in an even-handed way."