The Supreme Court of Canada will hear a case by eight groups seeking the right for parents to exempt their children from religion classes after the Superior Court of Quebec denied the parents’ request. The groups representing the parents hope to win the case in the coming months. With the controversy over Quebec’s public school religion courses, the question once again arises: what is the role of religion in public education? Depending on one’s perspective, Quebec’s religion curriculum could be viewed either as an objective treatment of the facts, or as an unfair imposition on students.
The curriculum, called the Ethics and Culture Program, was introduced into elementary and high schools in 2008 by the province’s Ministry of Education, replacing earlier religion courses. Allegedly, the purpose of the new program is to cover all major faiths found in Quebec culture, including Roman Catholic beliefs, Protestantism, Judaism, and aboriginal and indigenous spiritual traditions. A request by a contingent of parents from the town of Drummondville was originally rejected by the Superior Court in September, 2009, but Canada’s high court finally accepted the parents’ legal challenge.
According to representatives of the parents, the classes violate laws protecting the free exercise of religion. Eight groups are intervening on behalf of the parents, while two lawyers will be preparing arguments in their favor. One of these lawyers is Jean-Yves Coté, who belongs to one of the intervening groups. According to the CBC, Coté said, “We only seek an exemption” and “[a]lthough we don’t like the course, we don’t want it to be prohibited”, adding that the parents’ lawyers will try to argue how making the classes mandatory is an unconstitutional violation of religious freedom as protected in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In addition, Richard Decarie, president of the Coalition for the Freedom of Education, argued that while some people do not want the curriculum to be taught at all, others simply object to the way in which it is being implemented.
It is this last point that most closely touches on the question whether religion classes are appropriate in the public school system of a pluralistic, secular democracy such as Canada. Are students being taught religion, or being taught about religion? It is one thing to teach students from an objective standpoint about religion as a phenomenon of human society, but it is another thing entirely to endorse religion as a thing which students are expected to appreciate, or to which they are expected to adhere. The Quebec Ministry of Education’s Ethics and Culture Program does list several major world religions to be covered in classes, but it is conceivable that these religions might receive privileged treatment over other religions, simply because they are commonplace in the population. In order to avoid bias, teachers would have to focus solely on how these religions have played instrumental roles in the development of Quebec society, carefully maintaining a neutral, objective tone and avoiding suggestions that any one religion is better than another.
This may prove to be a challenging task for teachers to undertake, and it still seems difficult to teach elementary school students—especially young children—about religion without leading them to believe, for example, that the Holy Bible of the Christian faith is superior in veracity and wisdom to the spiritual and mystical traditions of aboriginal and pre-industrial cultures. After all, young children still have relatively undeveloped critical thinking skills and are generally less capable of discerning between observation and evaluation, fact and opinion. Indeed, we are still teaching them the difference between the two in elementary school, so how can we expect them to understand it when instruction on religion comes from an entirely neutral position? Stringent efforts would have to be made to emphasize this. Given these considerations, the Supreme Court of Canada might at least grant parents the right to spare their children the confusing message, “So, did the teacher say that there really was a Great Flood and a Noah’s ark?”
We would like to know what you think. As a pastor ordained in an ecumenical online church which incorporates various faith traditions and religious backgrounds, should parents have the right to exempt their children from religion courses? Should such courses be being taught in the first place?