In 1964, the Quebec government took charge of public education, which until then had been dominated by religious communities. For the next 30 years, the denominational school system remained in place.
In 1995, the Quebec government created a commission that recommended a farreaching review of educational programs.
In 1997, as a result of changes to the Constitution Act, 1867, abolishing Quebec's denominational school boards became constitutionally possible. Instead of religion, schools would be organized on the basis of language.
A task force on the role of religion in public schools was set up, which recommended that religion be studied from a cultural perspective. A formal secularization program for public schools began. As part of this initiative, an Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program was introduced in 2005. It has two components: instruction in ethics and instruction in religious culture. Ethics teaches students to "make judicious choices" and is not intended to "propose or impose moral rules, nor to study philosophical doctrines." Religious culture aims to foster an understanding of several religious traditions, including the historical and cultural importance of Catholicism and Protestantism in Quebec.
The ERC was implemented gradually. Until 2008, there were still Protestant and Catholic programs of religious and moral instruction in Quebec schools, but that year, the ERC program became mandatory for all students.
Catholic parents of school-aged children, known only as S.L. and D.J., applied in 2008 to their school district, the Commission Scolaire des ChÃªnes, to exempt their children from the ERC course on the grounds that it infringed their freedom of conscience and religion under subsection 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and under the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms. They argued that the mandatory nature of the ERC course interfered with their ability to teach their children in accordance with their religious beliefs.
The school district denied the exemption, compelling the children to participate in the ERC program. The parents sought court orders exempting their children and declaring that the ERC program violated their constitutional right to freedom of religion. They made a number of arguments, including that they were losing the ability to choose an education consistent with their own moral and religious principles, that the State was interfering with their children's religious faith and that the children were being exposed to a philosophical trend advocated by the State, namely moral relativism.
The trial judge held that the ERC program involved an objective presentation of various religions and did not put them in "an obligatory and coercive situation." He dismissed the parent's application for an exemption. They appealed to the Quebec Court of Appeal, which dismissed their case, then to the Supreme Court of Canada.
the Supreme court ruling
Public schools in Canada are a microcosm of our diverse and multicultural society. Distinct from the wider society, schools are populated with the most impressionable Canadians.
They are compelled by law to attend, which creates a flashpoint for disputes and differences involving religious beliefs and moral education.
In this context, to what extent are parents entitled to an exemption for their children when they disagree with the moral education promulgated in the public schools? Will we defer to the wishes of parents in the upbringing of their children, or will we hold parents to strict standards of proof of interference before we accommodate them?
Justice Marie Deschamps wrote the decision of the court on behalf of herself and six other judges. Justice Louis LeBel wrote a minority decision on behalf of himself and Justice Morris Fish. The majority focused on the argument that the religious freedom of the parents (as distinct from those of their children) had been infringed. They held that the parents had not shown that the ERC program interfered with their ability to pass their faith on to their children.
The court accepted that "absolute neutrality" does not exist in the school system when it comes to moral education, and held that such neutrality is not necessary. It is sufficient if the "State neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief " and "shows respect for all postures toward religion."
The majority focused on the constitutional acceptability of the ERC program itself. They found that "exposing children to a comprehensive presentation of various religions without forcing children to join them" does not constitute indoctrination. In the end, they held that the ERC program is within the constitutional power of the Quebec government.
The majority, then, summarily discounted the parents' concerns, finding that they remained free to pass on their religious beliefs to their children and that "early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society." They concluded that the parents had not shown any infringement of their right to religious freedom under subsection 2(a) of the Charter.
Justice LeBel, in his minority decision, focused directly on the parents' actual argument, namely that the refusal to exempt their children infringed subsection 2(a). He rightly pointed out that the parents did not seek to annul the ERC program. He found that the trial judge erred in focusing on the merits of the parents' beliefs (as opposed to the merits of their claims) and ought to have endeavoured instead to consider the program's content in concrete terms and its impact on the families involved.
Despite this different approach, Justice LeBel came to the same conclusion, namely that the parents had not objectively proven that compelling their children into the ERC program would interfere with their religious freedom. He agreed with the majority that "imparting information about different views of the world cannot be equated with a violation of freedom of religion."
In essence, the case became about proof, and since the children had not participated in the ERC program, there was no evidence of its impact on the family.
Where the court erred
Justice Gérard LaForest, retired from the Supreme Court of Canada, once observed that common law has long recognized that parents are in the best position to take care of their children and determine what is best for them. He said this in his decision in B(R) v. Children's Aid Society and in the context of determining that subsection 2(a) of the Charter includes the right of parents to raise their children in conformity with the parents' religious beliefs. (That difficult case involved whether Jehovah's Witness parents could withhold lifesaving medical care from a child for religious reasons.)
Parents bear responsibilities toward their children and must enjoy corresponding rights to exercise those responsibilities. Parents are in a privileged role in this regard. They are uniquely positioned to know and gauge their children's needs and abilities. As a result, the courts have recognized that parents are constitutionally protected when it comes to the moral and religious upbringing of their children.
The public school system is one in which, almost inevitably, there will be some conflict between the various belief systems of parents. As noted by Justice Charles Gonthier in Chamberlain v. Surrey School District, the Charter should not be used to negate one set of beliefs when it conflicts with another, whether popular or unpopular. The acceptable resolution is accommodating the needs of individual children and families participating in public education.
The majority of the Supreme Court of Canada approached the issue as whether the ERC program was constitutionally permissible. The ERC program itself was not on trial. The question was whether parents could obtain an exemption from having their children participate in the program when they sincerely believed it would undermine the religious instruction of their children
It is true that children will be exposed to realities and belief systems that differ from their own. That is a fact of life. However, the issue is who gets to decide the extent and timing of that exposure? Do the dictates of the ministry of education prevail, or should dissenting parents be accommodated?
the erc PrograM
It is well established in Canadian law that public schools cannot inculcate specific religious teachings or practices without running afoul of the guarantee of freedom of religion. In 1988, the Ontario Court of Appeal struck down a regulation that made Christian prayers and Scripture readings mandatory. Two years later, that same court struck down a regulation making religious instruction mandatory because its purpose and effect was religious indoctrination and not simply education about religion (which would be permissible).
In Chamberlain v. Surrey School District, the Supreme Court of Canada quashed a B.C. public school district decision refusing to approve books depicting same-sex couples for use in kindergarten and Grade 1 classrooms. The majority of the court held that the board had acted on the concern of certain parents about the morality of same-sex relationships without considering the interests of same-sexparented families. The court was clear that since religion is an integral part of people's lives, it cannot be left at the boardroom door and public schools are "free to address the religious concerns of parents" provided that there is equal recognition and respect for all members of the community.
A good example of these religious concerns being appropriately addressed was in the Multani v. Commission Scolaire decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in 2006, in which the court held that a Sikh student's religiously motivated desire to wear a kirpan (a ceremonial dagger) to school should be accommodated under subsection 2(a).
These decisions require that public schools be as neutral as possible when it comes to the religious beliefs and practices of the children and families they serve. They also establish that schools cannot indoctrinate or promote specific religious beliefs, but that religious minorities and their religiously motivated eccentricities should be accommodated.
The majority's statement that "absolute neutrality does not exist" is pragmatic and realistic. That having been said, a pedagogical approach to teaching ethics and morals that is based on postmodern concepts of relativism is sure to offend any parent with deeply held religious beliefs. This is because most religious traditions propound absolute truth and do not accept that morals are relative and subject to individual preferences or philosophies.