The Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision in the case of a private Catholic high school in Montreal only confirms the obvious: a faith-based education is not incompatible with the goals of a secular, democratic society.
In 2008, as part of the continued secularization of the Quebec school system, the province adopted a mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) Program to replace religious education in schools. But a statutory provision gave Quebec’s Minister of Education the discretionary ability to grant an exemption from the ERC program if a school offers an alternative, equivalent program.
Loyola, run by the Jesuit order for over a century, was denied such an exemption, however, because the proposed program would be taught from a Catholic standpoint and not from a neutral position.
The aim of the ERC program is laudable: to help students develop attitudes of openness, diversity, tolerance and respect for others who hold differing views. Loyola had no quarrel with those goals but wanted to teach from the Catholic perspective that animates the school.
The Supreme Court found that the minister failed to balance the objectives of the ERC program with the religious freedom of the individuals of Loyola’s faith-based community. It further stated that the minister erred in her presumption that the ERC program could only be taught from a secular, neutral stance. Loyola’s version of the curriculum could achieve the goals and the competencies of the ERC program, it concluded.
Although the justices of the Court ruled unanimously in Loyola’s favour, it was split four to three as to the remedy. The majority referred the matter back to the Minister for reconsideration, while the minority recommended that Loyola be allowed to proceed with its proposed program.
In the majority decision, Justice Rosalie Abella wrote: “Preventing a school like Loyola from teaching and discussing Catholicism, the core of its identity, in any part of the program from its own perspective, does little to further the ERC Program’s objectives while at the same time seriously interfering with the values underlying religious freedom.”
But the decision also reaffirmed the role of the state in administering education in religious schools. The state, it added, does not have “to abandon its objectives by accepting a program that frames the discussion of ethics primarily through the moral lens of a school’s own religion.”
Writing for the minority, Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin and Justice Michael Moldaver did not see a problem with the discussion of ethics occurring through Loyola’s Catholic lens. “Loyola’s teachers must be permitted to describe and explain Catholic doctrine and ethical beliefs from the Catholic perspective. Loyola’s teachers must describe and explain the ethical beliefs and doctrines of other religions in an objective and respectful way. Loyola’s teachers must maintain a respectful tone of debate, but where the context of the classroom discussion requires it, they may identify what Catholic beliefs are, why Catholics follow those beliefs, and the ways in which other ethical or doctrinal propositions do not accord with those beliefs.” To prevent them from doing so would render Loyola’s teachers “mute.”
As a Catholic who supports faith-based schools and the rights of individuals who choose those schools, the Supreme Court decision is a welcome one. I welcome it, too, as a former teacher with experience in both the Catholic and public school systems, and as a Canadian who values the freedoms of our secular democracy.
Lauded as a victory for religious freedom, this decision strikes a balance between religion and secularism. On one hand, the Court affirms the legitimacy of the state in prescribing and regulating curriculum in religious schools. State oversight helps to prevent religious indoctrination and the intolerance that accompanies it. On the other hand, the decision protects freedom of religion. A religious school may teach from the perspective of its tradition and doctrines provided its beliefs or practices do not “conflict with or harm overriding public interests.”
At a time in Canadian history when the courts are frequently asked to rule on cases that pit religion and secularism, Loyola serves as a reminder that church and state can work together for the common good.
Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.