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Supreme Court ruling a victory for religious freedom

March 25, 2015 No Comment

justiceCANADA – A recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling is being hailed as a major achievement in the preservation of freedom of religion for Christians across the country. On March 19, the court ruled to allow Loyola High School in Montreal—a private Roman Catholic institution run by the Jesuit order—to seek an exemption to teach the Ethics and Religious Culture course that is part of the provincial curriculum in Quebec.

The curriculum would have forced the school to teach all religions, including Roman Catholicism, from a secular perspective in the Ethics and Religious Culture course. But all justices agreed that the Province of Quebec had infringed upon the religious rights of Loyola members in the process—effectively forcing a Christian institution to teach Christian doctrine in a way contrary to its own perspective. Such an obligation “would require a degree of disconnect from, and suppression of, Loyola’s own religious perspective and that is incompatible with freedom of religion,” the Court ruled. “A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.”

The course, which is compulsory in all public high schools in Quebec, is a secular overview of religious and moral issues first instituted in 2008. That same year, the Loyola administration applied to the Minister of Education for an exemption to teach the course, suggesting that the school instead wanted to offer a similar course but within a faith-based context. The Minister refused to grant the exemption so the school took the matter to court. In 2010, the Quebec Superior Court ruled in favour of the school. The Minister of Education appealed the ruling and the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the Superior Court decision.

The justices at the Supreme Court were unanimous in declaring that the Province of Quebec had infringed upon religious rights by refusing to allow Loyola an exemption, but the actual decision was split 4-3, with the minority suggesting the majority did not go far enough in protecting religious freedoms.

The Supreme Court ruling allows Loyola High School to apply for an exemption from teaching the Ethics and Religious Culture course if it applies to the Minister of Education, and the Minister is obligated to abide by the court ruling. The school will therefore have the option to teach the course with modifications that present elements of it within a Catholic context.

Background information from the school explains that from the very beginning of the legal proceedings, it wanted to emphasize that “all people share in the common good,” and that the religious values at the core of the school actually shape the desire for tolerance and appreciation of others, stressing it “is the essence of pluralism; that each person can come to society as a whole person, not as one stripped of his or her essential beliefs.”

Since the 1960s, Quebec education policies have become increasingly secular. Before 1963, there was no provincial Department of Education, and the administration of the school system was the responsibility of Catholic and Protestant churches until the 1990s. The court ruling also follows other recent controversies over the public presence of religion in the province.

Loyola High School was founded in 1896 and many notable political, cultural, and business leaders have graduated from the all-boys facility. They include late Governor General Georges Vanier and his son; humanitarian Jean Vanier, late federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, and singer-songwriter Sam Roberts.

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