The Supreme Court of Canada and Quebec’s Ethics and Religious Culture Programme
On the 17th of February 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered its decision in the case S.L. c. Commission scolaire des Chênes in which two Catholic parents sought the right to have their children exempted from the Ethics and Religious Culture programme which was introduced in Quebec schools in 2008. The Court refused, thus confirming similar decisions by lower courts.
The new Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) course which has been taught in Quebec since September of 2008 was intended to mark the final stage in the secularization of the Quebec school system. It is a compulsory course, imposed on all levels in both elementary and secondary schools, and covers a variety of religions, with nevertheless an emphasis on Christianity and especially on Catholicism.
This new programme may show a greater degree of openness to non-Christian religions than its predecessor did, but that is too much for some parents to take. Two Catholic parents, identified only as S.L. and D.J., from the Quebec town of Drummondville, sued their local school board in a bid to have their children exempted from ERC. They maintain that the course threatens their right, and that of their children, to freedom of conscience and religion by exposing the children to other beliefs. According to these parents, ERC promotes relativism and thus places the children in a state of confusion and moral vacuum. But the Supreme Court of Canada, in its decision of February 17th, did not concur. The Court’s conclusions are divided into a majority opinion (seven judges) and a minority opinion (two judges), but both reject the appeal. Justice Deschamps, expressing the majority opinion, wrote:
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 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. […] The appellants have not proven that the ERC Program infringed their freedom of religion.
Clearly, the intentions of the parents in this case were based essentially on religious bigotry and Catholic parochialism : they wanted their children to be maintained in a state of ignorance with respect to religions other than the “correct” religion. For us as atheists and secularists, the Court’s decision to reject their arguments against ERC is therefore good news.
However, we have nothing to celebrate. The Ethics and Religious Culture programme is defective and must be either withdrawn or completely revised. As secularists we must oppose it for reasons which have nothing to do with those rejected by the Supreme Court. The implementation of ERC did not constitute a step forward for secularism in Quebec schools, but rather a net retreat, because the programme gives even more importance to religion in schools that did the previous course. Recall a few salient points about ERC:
- It is a compulsory religion course, with no exemptions allowed.
- It is compulsory at all levels, including the beginning of primary school when pupils are of an age when they may be unable to make the important distinction between mythology and reality – for example between a concept such as “Christians believe that Jesus was raised from the dead” and the corresponding historical assertion that “Jesus was raised from the dead.”
- In conjunction with ERC, a new service named “Spiritual Care and Guidance and Community Involvement Service” is now compulsory in all schools, whereas the pastoral service which it replaces was present only in a few Catholic high schools.
- Ethics and Religious Culture tightly associates morality with religion, as if religious belief were a necessary condition for the existence of morals and ethics. It thus implicitly encourages existing prejudices against atheists and other non-believers.
- The ERC curriculum leaves little place for the study of unbelief: atheism, philosophical materialism, agnosticism, humanism, etc. In fact, the word “atheism” has apparently been purged from the curriculum.
On this final point, it is interesting to note that the Supreme Court justices show themselves to be perhaps a little more enlightened than the authors of the ERC programme. Quoting Justice Deschamps again: “state neutrality is assured when the state neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief, that is, when it shows respect for all postures towards religion, including that of having no religious beliefs whatsoever, while taking into account the competing constitutional rights of the affected individuals affected.”
With ERC, the old religion-based school system has been replaced by a multireligious system. The ERC course reflects and reinforces the status quo in that its choice of beliefs and attitudes corresponds to the predominance of those beliefs and attitudes in society. The Catholic parents S.L. and D.J. oppose the programme because it is insufficiently regressive and closed-minded in their opinion. We as secularists oppose it because it promotes the idea that society is merely a collection of disparate religious communities, and that the identity and values of the individual can only be based on his or her membership in one of those communities.
To secularize the school system, the bottom line is this: compulsory courses whose principal topic is religion are unacceptable. Even if the ERC programme were targeted only at pupils mature enough for the subject matter, it would still have to be rejected. Religion has no place in compulsory curricula of public schools except when it appears in context, for example in courses in history, literature, geography, etc.
The recent decision of the Supreme Court of Canada is a victory for multiculturalism – the anti-secularism of the 21st century – over sectarian religious bigotry – which is the anti-secularism of preceding centuries. It is a victory of the religious left over the religious right. It is a victory for so-called “open secularism” – which is the opposite of secularism because it opens state institutions, in particular the public school system, to religious intrusion. With this decision, the Court has delivered a little bit of progress. Too little.
- Judgment of the Supreme Court of Canada, S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes
- “A Major Setback for Secularism in Quebec Schools,” by Marie-Michelle Poisson Humanist Perspectives no. 170, Autumn 2009.