By Ingrid Peritz
Montreal — From Globe and Mail Jun. 21, 2010
In a decision that sets back Quebec’s efforts to strip religion from the province’s institutions, a judge has ruled that the government showed Inquisition-like intolerance in the way it imposed a secular ethics course on a private Roman Catholic school.
The ironic reference to religious zealotry in the pursuit of secularism came in a ruling that handed a victory to Montreal’s Loyola High School. The Jesuit boy’s school went to court for the right to keep teaching its ethics course from a Roman Catholic perspective.
In a decision handed down Friday, Superior Court Judge Gérard Dugré said that not only did Quebec violate Loyola’s religious freedoms by insisting it teach the secular course, but also it went about it in a “totalitarian” manner.
“In this age of the respect of fundamental rights, of tolerance, reasonable accommodation and multiculturalism, the attitude adopted by the [education] minister is surprising,” Judge Dugré wrote.
“The obligation imposed on Loyola to teach the ethics and religious culture course in a lay fashion assumes a totalitarian character essentially equivalent to Galileo’s being ordered by the Inquisition to deny the Copernican universe.”
Premier Charest says the Quebec government will appeal.
Stripping religion/faith from the school system has become a goal of many political leaders in Canada over the last two or three decades. Prayer, specifically the Lord's Prayer, has been replaced by a multitude of prayer samples, paying deference to the multitude of religions in a multicultural society. Now, this judge has drawn a line in the sand, both about imposing a "secular" curriculum of Ethics on a Roman Catholic/Jesuit boys school, which does receive funds from the provincial government, and about the manner in which the government bureaucrats imposed their ruling.
One implication is that the multiple perspectives of various religious faiths in the government curriculum, on a subject like abortion, can be replaced with the Roman Catholic perspective, specifically opposed.
Curricular matters are only one aspect of the question. The lawyer acting for the Catholic school argued that the teacher of the government curriculum acted merely as an "emcee" introducing the various points of view. The ruling would permit the Jesuit instructor(s) to state their own personal view.
So, what is the role of the public education system? And what of the public's dollars spent in the pursuit of an ethical curriculum in a multi-religious, multi-cultural milieu?
There are serious ethical questions about the larger question...and is democracy the best instrument to determine the answer to such questions. If a majority of a voting public holds a particular religious view, do they have the right to impose that view on the schools receiving public dollars to operate? Would that not potentially lead to specific groups dominating a school district, and forming a majority of the school board, and voting to permit "their" specific approach to ethical questions to be taught in their school district, where students of different religious backgrounds and preferences, including no religious preference, attend?
Many years ago, Margaret Laurence's novels were banned in Peterborough secondary schools because they contained descriptions of human sexual activity. These protests came from another, and different, religious lobby, the fundamentalist, evangelical Christian brand.
It says here that when a specific religious "group" seizes control of the public education system, and imposes its curricular agenda, whether through the courts or through some jerrymandered voting mechanism, then students in such schools have become pawns of that "belief system". And if the society is going to permit the expenditure of public funds for specific religious expression of ethical perspectives, then it must permit such rules to apply to all religious persuasions. If not to one, then not to any, would be the clear corrolorary.
If we want, and do have, Hindu students sitting beside Moslem students and beside Jewish and Catholic students and beside atheists in the same classroom, then any ethical program worthy of the name has to include the ethical perspectives of all represented faiths, and perhaps even those not specifically represented.
Especially at the senior levels where these matters ought to be taught, students will be quite capable of discerning both similarities and differences, and of making mature judgements of how to compose their own ethical standards, most likely choosing from different faith perspectives.
However, once the school system is and/or appears to be "taken over" by a particular faith, then there is no place for a different perspective, at least officially.
Do all Roman Catholic teachers, for example, follow the church's teaching about abortion? I doubt it.
Does that mean that, at Loyola in Quebec, the teacher of ethics must advocate the Roman Catholic position, as the only "ethical" one. Probably.
And just how "ethical" is that?