Over the past 30 years, freedom of religion in Canada has come under increasing attack by unprincipled judicial activists and authoritarian politicians. Now the Supreme Court of Canada and the Legislature of Quebec have taken this proclivity to a new extreme, by arbitrarily decreeing that Christian parents no longer have an inalienable right to shelter their children from anti-Christian propaganda in elementary and secondary schools.
At issue is a controversial course in Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC), which the Quebec Legislature has recently imposed on all public and private schools in the province. In a unanimous ruling on February 17 in S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld a decision by the Quebec education ministry to deny two Christian parents the right to withdraw their children from the course, notwithstanding the ostensible guarantee of freedom of religion in section two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In reasons for judgment written by Madam Justice Marie Deschamps, the Court held that the parents had failed to “discharge their burden” of proving an infringement of their right to freedom of religion, by showing “from an objective standpoint, the ERC Program interfered with their ability to pass their faith on to their children.”
In making this statement, Deschamps committed two fundamental errors. First, to give meaning to the guarantee of freedom of religion in the Charter, she should have placed the onus on the state to make a clear and compelling case for interfering with the rights of parents to choose the kind of religious education they want for their children. Non-Christian parents always had a generally recognized right across Canada to withdraw their children from Christian devotional exercises in the public schools (that is to say, until those devotions were abolished by arbitrary judicial decree in the 1990s). By this token, Christian parents should likewise have an unqualified right to withdraw their children from the moral and religious instruction mandated by the secular majority for public and private schools.
Second, notwithdstanding Deschamps’ assertion to the contrary, the parents in S.L. did provide objective evidence that the ERC course would interfere with their ability to pass their faith on to their children. Indeed, Deschamps cited some of that very evidence in her ruling when she observed that in a preamble to documents spelling out the purpose of the ECR Program, the Quebec Ministère de l’Éducation states:“For the purposes of this program, instruction in ethics is aimed at developing an understanding of ethical questions that allows students to make judicious choices based on knowledge of the values and references present in society.”
The parents in S.L. do not want their children to make moral choices based on “the values and references present in society.” Instead, they aim to inculcate in their children an appreciation for the universal and constant truths of Judeo-Christian morality as revealed in Sacred Scripture and expounded by the teaching magisterium of the Catholic Church.
The same documents setting out the purpose of the ECR Program quoted by Deschamps were also cited by Mr. Justice Gérard Dugré of the Quebec Superior Court in Loyola High School c. Courchesne, a parallel case dealing with a request for an exemption from the ERC Program by a Catholic private school with a long and distinguished history in Quebec. Specifically, Dugré noted that while teachers in a Catholic school are supposed to affirm the truths of the Catholic faith, the ERC Program requires teachers to refrain from advocating their “convictions, values and beliefs” so as “not to influence the students in the elaboration of their own point of view.”
On this basis, Dugré concluded that Loyola has a fundamental constitutional right to an exemption from the ERC Program. He denounced the determination of the state to require Loyola to teach the secular ERC Program as a “totalitarian” imposition “which is essentially equivalent to the order given to Galileo by the Inquisition to deny the Copernican cosmology.”
Consider the ominous implications for religious liberty in Canada: By Dugré’s enlightened standard, the Supreme Court of Canada in S.L. has unanimously sanctioned the totalitarian imposition of anti-Christian teaching on the children of faithful Catholic parents in Quebec.