When I was growing up in Quebec in the late 1960s and 70s, there were publicly funded separate Protestant and Catholic school boards which included French and English schools also called “confessional schools.”
Being Catholic, I attended French schools from elementary to secondary that were part of the Catholic school board. So I had catechism classes up until grade 9. When students reached grade 10, the school allowed students to choose between moral or religious educational classes. In moral class, we learned philosophy, humanities and other religions and cultures. Well, this was the state of affairs when I grew up.
In 1998, a year before I moved to Toronto, these publicly funded separate school boards were replaced with linguistically based secular school systems. Private schools could continue being confessional schools and receive a prorated subsidy for each child, provided the school met and followed government standards.
Consequently, the fully publicly funded school boards and schools were deconfessionalized, but they still allowed Catholic and Protestant religious education classes for students with faith where their numbers were large enough. Secular school systems allowed non-religious moral education as well. However, this provision was removed in 2000.
In 2005, to foster harmonious relations among students of different backgrounds and to introduce them to religious practices and traditions from around the world as well as from Quebec, the provincial government gradually imposed a controversial new Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) curriculum on all schools, even the private ones.
By 2008, the Ethics and Religious Culture Program became mandatory in Quebec schools, replacing the Catholic and Protestant programs of religious and moral instruction. The ERC Program covers a broad range of world religions, with particular emphasis on Quebec’s religious heritage: Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and aboriginal spirituality. It is taught from Grade 1 through Grade 11 (elementary to secondary school).
Several Catholic parents requested that the school board exempt their children from the ERC Program, arguing that it would cause “serious harm” to the children within the meaning of the Education Act. Section 222 of the Act states:
Every school board shall ensure that the basic school regulation established by the Government is implemented in accordance with the gradual implementation procedure established by the Minister under section 459.
For humanitarian reasons or to avoid serious harm to a student, the school board may, following a request, with reasons, made by the parents of the student, by the student, if of full age, or by the school principal, exempt the student from the application of a provision of the basic school regulation. In the case of an exemption from the rules governing certification of studies referred to in section 460, the school board must apply therefor to the Minister.
The school board may also, subject to the rules governing certification of studies prescribed by the basic school regulation, permit a departure from a provision of the basic school regulation so that a special school project applicable to a group of students may be carried out. However, a departure from the list of subjects may only be permitted in the cases and on the conditions determined by a regulation of the Minister made under section 457.2 or with the authorization of the Minister given in accordance with section 459. (Emphasis added.)
Based on that section, the parents claimed that:
The ERC Program is too broad and infringed their and their children’s right to freedom of conscience and religion. These parents sincerely believe that they have an obligation to pass on the precepts of the Catholic religion to their children and that ERC Program prevents that.
They further claim that the ERC Program is not in fact neutral and that students following the ERC course would be exposed to a form of relativism which would interfere with their ability to pass their faith on to their children. They also maintain that exposing children to various religious facts is confusing for them.
In substance, they argue that the mandatory nature of the program infringes their freedom of religion.
The director of educational resources for young students denied the exemptions.
Several court challenges were launched against the ERC’s compulsory nature. Two parents from Drummondville persisted, and with the support of several Christian groups and civil liberties advocacy groups, they brought their assertion all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
On February 17, 2012, the highest court in Canada unanimously disagreed with them and dismissed their case. Writing for the majority, Justice Marie Deschamps said the parents failed to show that the ERC course interfered with their ability to transmit their faith to their children stating:
Parents are free to pass their personal beliefs on to their children if they so wish. However, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society. …
The evidence demonstrates, firstly, that the Ministère’s formal purpose does not appear to have been to transmit a philosophy based on relativism or to influence young people’s specific 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 [the students in question]. Furthermore, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society.
Such exposure “can be a source of friction,” Deschamps acknowledged, but it does not infringe the children’s or parents’ freedom or religion. Allowing children to opt out of the course would be “a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education,” the Court ruled.
Therefore, the trial judge did not err in holding that the school board’s refusal to exempt their children from the ERC course did not violate their constitutional right.
Justice LeBel with Justice Fish concurring wrote separate reasons as to why the appeal is dismissed but of importance is the statement,
The state of the record, however, also does not permit to conclude that the ERC Program and its implementation could not, in the future, possibly infringe the rights granted to L and J and persons in the same situation…
The single textbook filed in the record may cause some confusion in terms of the way it presents the connection between the program’s religious content and its ethical content. For example, does the content of the Christmas‑related exercises for six‑year‑old students encourage the transformation of an experience and tradition into a form of folklore consisting merely of stories about mice or surprising neighbours? These are some potential questions and concerns. The record before this Court does not make it possible to respond to them. However, the legal situation could change during the existence of the ERC Program.
Leaving the door open for future challenges on possible infringements due to the ERC program.
Knowing the elements of different cultures and religions around us is not bad or wrong. Learning how to interact and respect persons with different cultures and religions should be encouraged. However, I do not agree that the course should be made mandatory. Parents with elementary- and secondary-aged students should be provided with a choice between religious or ethics instruction. Taking away that choice is where the problem lies and the story will not end there.