Christian parents who objected to their children being taught about other religions in a mandatory new Quebec school course have suffered a serious setback with a ruling this week that the teachings do not infringe their religious freedoms.
Quebec Superior Court Justice Jean-Guy Dubois dismissed a bid by parents in Drummondville, Que., who said the course on ethics and religious culture introduced across the province last year was undermining their efforts to instill Christian faith in their children. “In light of all the evidence presented, 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,” Judge Dubois wrote.
The course was controversial even before instruction began last September. During the year there were protest marches in some cities, and about 1,700 parents asked that their children be exempted from attending the class. All such requests were refused.
The course’s introduction was the final step in the secularization of Quebec schooling that began with a 1997 constitutional amendment replacing denominational school boards with linguistic ones.
As of last year, parents no longer had the right to choose between courses in Catholic, Protestant or moral instruction. The new curriculum 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.
The course’s scope was too broad for the parents in the Drummondville case, who cannot be named because their two minor children are involved. During the trial, the children’s mother testified that she did not see why her seven-year-old son needs to learn about Islam when he is still forming his own Catholic spirituality. “It’s very confusing,” she said.
In his ruling, Judge Dubois cited a Catholic theologian who testified that religious instruction is primarily the responsibility of parents, not schools. He added that there is a commitment on the part of the Catholic church to understand other religions.
The Quebec government, which intervened in the case in support of the Des Chenes school board, argued that the course was objective and in no way limited parents’ ability to pass their religious beliefs on to their children. Teaching children about other religions is a way to promote “equality, respect and tolerance in the Quebec school system,” it said.
Sebastien Lebel-Grenier, a law professor at Universite de Sherbrooke, said he is not surprised that the new course survived a challenge under the Charter of Rights.
“What parents were demanding was the right to ignorance, the right to protect their children from being exposed to the existence of other religions,” he said. “This right to ignorance is certainly not protected under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Freedom of religion does not protect the right not to know what is going on in our universe.” He said the course is aimed not at instilling religious values but at trying “to explain to these children the diversity in which we now live in Quebec.”
Richard Decarie, spokesman for a coalition opposed to the course, said the decision is a disappointment. He believes there are grounds for an appeal, but is not sure the parents involved can afford more legal expenses. He said they have already spent close to $100,000 fighting the case.
“The course shouldn’t be compulsory, because it changes completely how parents keep their moral authority over the education of their children,” said Mr. Decarie, of the Coalition for Freedom in Education.