Loyola’s good fight
NationalPost.com – Opinion/Editorial
Monday, Jun. 28, 2010
In 2008, the Quebec government introduced a grade-school course titled “Ethics and Religious Culture” (ECR), to replace the religion courses previously offered by the province’s schools. Compulsory in all public and private institutions, ECR presents all religions on a morally relativistic footing, and devotes considerable weight to the history of liberal social movements.
The introduction of ECR generated opposition among parents who saw it as an exercise in social engineering. Two court challenges were launched, one involving the public school system, which failed, and one involving the private system, which was decided earlier this month in Montreal.
The case dates back to March, 2008, when Loyola High School, a private Catholic boys’ school in Montreal, asked the Quebec government for an exemption from ECR. Loyola wished to teach an equivalent program from a Catholic perspective, in order to be true to its Jesuit mandate. The government denied the school’s request on the grounds that its program was confessional, and thus inherently incompatible with the secular ECR. Loyola took the matter to court.
In a 63-page judgment, Justice Gerard Dugre of the Quebec Superior Court held that the government’s refusal to exempt Loyola from the course was “totalitarian” and unconstitutional. The judge decried the province’s decision as a breach of freedom of religion, guaranteed by the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms.
We applaud this decision. Educators don’t have to be agnostic to teach ethics and the beliefs of the world’s major religions. To explicitly preclude teaching ECR from a confessional perspective, as the judge points out, directly contradicts one of the goals of the course: to respect diversity of belief and the different means of achieving the same ends.
At the same time, we concede that a democratically elected provincial government has the right to supervise school curricula — especially when taxpayer money is on the line. In Quebec, even private schools benefit from substantial government funding: The government pays 60% of the cost per student that it would in the public system.
This policy leads to unavoidable tensions — because parents who send their children to private schools often do so precisely in order to avoid the one-size-fits-all approach to education that takes place in the public system. And so the government allows for exemptions on an ad hoc basis. Loyola had received one before, when it sought to combine two years of instruction of social studies into one. Other schools, such as ” sports etudes” institutions, may receive exemptions from the usual physical-education requirements, as their students are already getting a heavy dose of specialized sports.
Religion and ethics courses present a more profound problem, however, because they seek to directly shape the child’s values — an area that directly implicates a family’s freedom of conscience and of religion. Parents who send their children to a private religious school are not just paying for what they believe to be a higher-quality education, but are seeking continuity with the values they teach their children at home. To have those contradicted in the school environment undermines their goal.
This is a good opportunity for the Quebec government to revisit the ECR issue entirely, with a view toward striking a better balance between parents’ right to the religious and moral education of their children, and the state’s right to determine the classroom curricula that it funds: While retaining the current case-by-case exemption-approvals process, the government also should set a policy whereby private institutions that seek to go their own way entirely can elect to do so by rejecting some specified share of the government funding they would otherwise receive.
Parents would thus have a choice: Pay more for the privilege of exempting their children from ECR, or accept state money and the state’s secularized curriculum.
In some cases, such as home schooling, parents may receive no government funds already, and should be exempted from the government’s version of ECR if they choose. Students will still have to take the government’s final exams in the course to get their high school diploma, but how they learn the material will be up to their parents.
Predictably, the Quebec government has appealed Justice Dugre’s decision, and Loyola will contest the appeal. Meanwhile, the school will teach ECR in the way it proposed, from a confessional standpoint. While no other school has asked for an exemption, Loyola’s principal, Paul Donovan, told the National Post that “I know that a number of heads of schools are very interested to see how this case turns out.” So are parents, and anyone who values parents’ ability to shape the moral and religious education of their children.
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