I was in Ottawa last week for several things when I was invited by Bruce Clemenger, the President of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, to attend a court case at the Supreme Court of Canada. The case is best described in the case summary below taken from the EFC website.
“S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes (hereafter, the “Drummondville” case), a case originating in Quebec, will address the issue of whether parents have the right to choose the kind of education their children will receive, particularly in regard to religious instruction. The case will cut to the core of what freedom of religion and conscience and parental authority mean in Canada.
At issue is the Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program, a mandatory course which must be taught to all québécois children. The course has as its objective the instruction of children in a manner that will promote “the development of attitudes of tolerance, respect and openness”, thus “preparing them to live in a pluralist and democratic society.” The course is not a graduation requirement.
The perspective of many parents and the position of the mother in this case is that parents have and wish to retain the right to teach morality and religion to their children from their perspective, or decide who will do so on their behalf. The right to pass on one’s religious and cultural heritage to their children is a fundamental aspect of religious freedom and parental authority in Canada.
The parents in this case requested that their children be exempt from participation in the ERC program. The request was turned down by the school (as was every similar request made in the province of Quebec).
After following the appropriate appeal route at the school board level, the parents sought a judgement from the Superior Court of Quebec as to whether the mandatory nature of the ERC program violated their freedom of conscience and religion as protected by the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. They also asked the court to address some administrative law issues relating to statements that the Minister of Education made in a press conference – that children could not be exempted from participating in the ERC program.
While the Court found that the parents and children were sincere believers in their Catholic faith, it ruled that the ERC program did not violate their freedoms of religion and conscience. It also ruled that the parents were unable to satisfy the court that their children would suffer harm as a result of being required to attend this program, therefore they would not qualify for an exemption.”
The result of this decision communicates that the state may impose a curriculum that conflicts with the moral codes parents wish to instil in their children and that parents do not have ultimate authority over the moral and religious education of their children.
The Quebec Court of Appeal refused to hear the parents’ request to appeal the decision of the lower court, but the Supreme Court of Canada has agreed to hear it in May 2011.”
The decision by the Quebec court was being appealed by lawyers representing the parents whose request for their children to be exempt from the course was denied. They were joined in the appeal by a coalition of groups that included the Conference of Catholic Bishops, Parents Organizations, Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association among others. Those who were defending the case represented various levels of Quebec government in society. Depending on your perspective, this was a parents’ rights case, a rights of children’s case, a freedom of religion case, or a right of the state to encourage and facilitate pluralism case. Picking one of these is difficult. Sometimes, as in the case of blood transfusions, the child’s rights should supersede those of the parents. Clearly, when a parent seeks to protect a child from harm (however that harm is defined) parents have responsibilities. Clearly, some of the examples of the course intentions and examples, show that the course was not about simply educating children on various religions taking them all at face value (which is a pluralistic concept) but its intention was by denying respect to different faiths, it was making them the same, and therefore undermining faith traditions of those children attending the course. The course, in my opinion, could have been constructed in such a fashion to allay most parents concerns. Instead, it simply exacerbated parental anxiety and also undermined general religious expression by producing a syncretism, which in spite of its intentions denigrates everyone. I could say more, but this is enough for now.