There is something absurdly Canadian—Canadianally absurd?—about applauding the Supreme Court's ruling this spring in the Loyola High School case.
At its most elemental level, the decision handed down in March ended a seven-year legal battle when the country's supreme legal minds confirmed a private Montreal Catholic school's right to teach Catholicism from a Catholic perspective. Hosanna and huzzah! The sky is blue. The grass is green. The birds will fly south again next fall.
Blinding statements of the obvious, however, are rarely so easy on the eyes. The unanimous judgment's details show signs of what our Cardus colleagues at Comment magazine have begun calling "cracks in the secular." Indeed, in an optimistic light, the findings of Madame Justice Rosalie Abella and her colleagues can be seen as gaping holes through which sanity may return to faith in our common life.
"A vibrant, multicultural democracy depends on the capacity of its citizens to engage in thoughtful and inclusive forms of deliberation," Justice Abella wrote. "But a secular State does not—and cannot—interfere with the beliefs or practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests. A secular State respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them."
Disrespect for religious difference and Charter guarantees of religious freedom, if not the outright extinguishing of religious belief, was the outcome of the Quebec government's refusal to grant Loyola High School an exemption from teaching the full Ethics and Religious Culture program. Loyola had asked permission to teach the Catholic components of the curriculum from a Catholic perspective. Education ministry bureaucrats twice denied the request, insisting the course had to be taught as written and from a strictly secular, non-confessional perspective.
Such a posture, the Supreme Court said, represented a "serious interference" with religious freedom. While it is reasonable to expect Loyola to teach about other religions from a "neutral" perspective, the Court said, the refusal to allow the Montreal Jesuit school to manifest its own identity while teaching about Catholicism contradicts the Ethics and Religious Culture program's own stated goal of promoting tolerance and fairness.
Such sharp rebukes to the voracious secularists who've stalked the land for a generation was itself enough to justify the litigants for Loyola claiming "total victory" in the case. But there was even deeper cause for belief that something like a sane balance between faith and public life has been struck. In dealing with the included question of whether corporations and institutions have Charter protections for religious freedom, the justices came this close to declaring religious belief an inherent characteristic analogous to sex, language, race, sexual orientation and so on. They accept the argument that religious faith is not a choice but a cornerstone of personal identity. When it comes to Charter law and rights issues, they suggest, a gay Catholic is neither gay nor Catholic merely as a matter of optional lifestyle.
The implications of that for future Charter cases is a matter for finer minds than mine. I do know that some very fine minds working on the legal fight over Trinity Western University's proposed law school have taken great comfort in the wording of the Loyola decision. As lawyer Barry Bussey writes in this issue, they had already received a major boost from the decision of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, which put an end to the shenanigans of that province's bar society in trying to blacklist future Trinity Western grads.
Bussey writes that Justice Jamie Smith's decision "eloquently described the blinding light of arrogance that flows from the moral judgments that favour religion and equality. One moral matrix makes it possible to say, 'Homosexual acts are a sin. That is the word of God. There is nothing to debate here.' The other moral matrix makes it possible to say, 'A law school that discriminates is just wrong. There is nothing to debate here.' The legal blind spot failed to recognize that tolerance is a process that engages both moral views while accepting the discomfort of views that may be 'incomprehensible . . . contemptible or detestable' to our own."
Of course, even tolerance can be pushed past absurdity to the boundary of social insanity. Such is the self-evident case with the Supreme Court's ruling mandating doctor-delivered death in Canada's health care system. The ruling is cracked open, and its terrifying implications exposed, in this month's Conversation between renowned ethicist Margaret Somerville and religion journalist turned anti-euthanasia fighter Charles Lewis. The best summary of their discussion, and the situation we face, is Lewis' final comment: "Oh God."
Hosanna and huzzah to that.