Catholic Civil Rights League and EFC disappointed with decision
OTTAWA (CCN)—The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Quebec’s mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture program (ERC) does not violate the religious freedom of Catholic parents who wished to exempt their children.
The decision has drawn a cautious response from the Quebec Catholic Bishops and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). They promise to study the decision and monitor further developments.
But the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Christian Legal Fellowship (CLF), and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) have expressed disappointment with the decision. The League has called it a denial of parental rights.
The decision concerns the so-called Drummondville parents, known in the decision as L and J, who fought all the way to the Supreme Court for the right to have their children exempted from the mandatory course on religious freedom grounds.
“L and J have not proven that the ERC Program infringed their freedom of religion, or consequently, that the school board’s refusal to exempt their children from the ERC course violated their constitutional right,” the decision said.
The Canadian Catholic School Trustees, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), the Christian Legal Fellowship and Liberties Association were among the interveners.
At least 2,000 parents have asked to have their children exempted.
The parents and several interveners argued the ERC is not neutral but indoctrinates children into a form of moral relativism. The Supreme Court said the evidence does not support that view. The court also said Quebec’s education ministry does not promote a philosophy of relativism, or influence children’s beliefs.
“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 of L and J,” the decision said. “Furthermore, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society.”
The decision also said teaching children religion at home goes against Canadian freedoms.
“The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education.”
“Because education in Canada is under provincial and territorial responsibility, it is the Catholic Bishops of each province or territory who respond to questions regarding their specific educational systems,” said a CCCB statement. “All Bishops across the country will be carefully studying the decision today by the Supreme Court of Canada in the ‘Drummondville parents' case."
However, the bishops didn’t rule out further action.
“If the bishops decide the ruling may raise questions that extend beyond provincial responsibilities, they will discuss any such concerns at their regional Episcopal assemblies and possibly also at the meetings of their national assembly, which is the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.”
The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec (AECQ) also responded cautiously, saying the bishops will continue to maintain an attitude of openness and prudence towards the program.
AECQ General Secretary Bertrand Ouellet said in an interview the bishops’ preference all along had been for parental choice, but “the government does not seek the approval of the bishops.”
“In 2008, after repeatedly expressing our preference for an option between a confessional approach to religious education and moral instruction without a religious dimension, we acknowledged the decision of the Quebec government to implement a single course for all—the Ethics and Religious Culture program—and we recognized the value of its major goals: the recognition of others and the pursuit of the common good,” said the AECQ in a statement in French.
“We believe that all young people need appropriate training to be able to appreciate the place of religion—especially Catholicism---in the history and current culture of Quebec. This course can contribute to the extent that it respects the freedom of conscience of the young people and their parents and where it present well the different religious traditions.”
The statement concluded that the bishops would continue an open attitude while vigilant.
Ouellet said that the bishops approved the principles behind the government’s decision, but raised concerns about some aspects of the manuals. How the ERC rolls out at the classroom level remains to be seen, he said.
If the bishops find some documented evidence that something is taught that is not accurate or contrary to the principles of the program, they will say so publicly, Ouellet said, noting that the concerns are less about the program than on “how it is done.”
However, the League, the EFC and the CLF expressed disappointment with the decision.
“While the course has as its objective the promotion of tolerance and respect, the curriculum advances certain rights and values at the expense of others including the Appellants,” said the CLF.
“In effect, the court has asserted that all Quebec parents must expose their children to this course, obtain an evidentiary record for their concerns on their allegations, and return to the process of seeking an exemption from their local school board,” said the League.
“The overall impact of the court's decision enlarges the state's role into family autonomy,” said the League, citing the rights of parents as first educators in the Charter, the Quebec Civil Code and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
“The League urges the government of Quebec to take the concerns of parents seriously, and to provide an alternative delivery of a program which accords with their religious rights, which numerous surveys have indicated a majority of Quebec parents would prefer.”
“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,” said EFC Vice-President and General Legal Counsel Don Hutchinson. “The Supreme Court of Canada said nothing on those points in this decision.” he said.
“Rather, the Court hung their legal hat on a technicality, basically saying they were not making a decision on the issues at the heart of this case because the case was started before there was objective evidence of harm to children, parental rights or religious beliefs resulting from the Quebec curriculum as the ERC was not yet operative.”
Hutchinson was blunt on how parents should view the Supreme Court’s decision.
“Parents and other Canadians should see this for what it is, a non-decision on parental rights and religious freedom in which the Court has simply clarified the process for bringing and evaluating a complaint of a rights violation before the courts.”
The EFC acknowledges the purpose of the ERC is to “promote tolerance and respect, thus equipping them to live a pluralist society,” but said it has “proven to be polarizing and controversial.”
“Its mandate, while on first appearance seeming at home in Canada’s multicultural society, actually challenges the rights and values of parents and their religious beliefs,” the EFC says.
Though the Supreme Court said there is no evidence the ERC has violated religious freedom, it leaves open the possibility that such evidence might come to light in the future.
“The Court has left the door open to a similar case returning to the court if an objective infringement of rights can be demonstrated, rather than a parental concern about infringement,” said EFC Legal Counsel Faye Sonier. “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 the four to seven years a similar fact situation will take to get through the court system again after somebody has the objective evidence of their rights being violated by the program.”
Hutchinson said other provinces permit classroom exemptions and other forms of accommodation.
“At least the Supreme Court has sounded a warning to the provincial ministries of education to be reasonable or risk ending up before the Court with the potential for a decision that favours parental rights,” he said.