"Church and state can work together for the common good"
In 2008, as part of the continued secularization of the Quebec school system, the province adopted a mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) Program to replace religious education in schools. A statutory provision gives Quebec’s Minister responsible for education the discretionary ability to grant an exemption from the ERC program if a school offers an alternative, equivalent program. Loyola, a private Catholic high school run by the Jesuit order for over a century, applied for and was denied an exemption because the proposed program would be taught from a Catholic standpoint and not from a neutral position.
The objectives of the ERC program are the “recognition of others” and the “pursuit of the common good”. Through the program’s three components - world religions and religious culture, ethics, and dialogue - students are expected to develop attitudes of openness, diversity, tolerance and respect. They are to learn the skills necessary for engaging in respectful dialogue with others who hold differing views. Loyola had no quarrel with the goals and competencies of the provincially mandated ERC program but wanted to teach from the Catholic perspective that animates the school.
The Court found that the minister failed to proportionately balance the objectives of the ERC program and the religious freedom of the individuals of Loyola’s faith-based community. The minister erred in her presumption that the ERC program could only be taught from a secular, neutral stance. Loyola’s version of the curriculum could achieve the goals and the competencies of the ERC program.
While the justices of the Court ruled unanimously in Loyola’s favor, they were split 4-3 on the remedy. The majority referred the matter back to the Minister for reconsideration, while the minority recommended that Loyola be allowed to proceed with its proposed program.
In the majority decision, Justice Abella writes, “Preventing a school like Loyola from teaching and discussing Catholicism, the core of its identity, in any part of the program from its own perspective, does little to further the ERC Program’s objectives while at the same time seriously interfering with the values underlying religious freedom.”
At the same time, the decision reaffirms the role of the state in administering education in religious schools. The state does not have “to abandon its objectives by accepting a program that frames the discussion of ethics primarily through the moral lens of a school’s own religion.”
Writing for the minority, Chief Justice McLachlin and Justice Moldaver did not see a problem with the discussion of ethics occurring through Loyola’s Catholic lens. “Loyola’s teachers must be permitted to describe and explain Catholic doctrine and ethical beliefs from the Catholic perspective. Loyola’s teachers must describe and explain the ethical beliefs and doctrines of other religions in an objective and respectful way. Loyola’s teachers must maintain a respectful tone of debate, but where the context of the classroom discussion requires it, they may identify what Catholic beliefs are, why Catholics follow those beliefs, and the ways in which other ethical or doctrinal propositions do not accord with those beliefs.” To prevent them from doing so would render Loyola’s teachers “mute.”
I welcome the Supreme Court decision from my perspective as a Catholic who supports faith-based schools and the rights of individuals who choose those schools. I welcome it, too, as a former teacher with experience in both the Catholic and public school systems, and as a Canadian who values the freedoms of our secular democracy.
Lauded as a victory for religious freedom, in my view, this decision strikes a balance between religion and secularism. On one hand, the Court affirms the legitimacy of the state in prescribing and regulating curriculum in religious schools. State oversight helps to prevent religious indoctrination and the intolerance that accompanies it. On the other hand, the decision protects freedom of religion. A religious school may teach from the perspective of its tradition and doctrines provided its beliefs or practices do not “conflict with or harm overriding public interests.”
At a time in Canadian history when the courts are frequently asked to rule on cases that pit religion and secularism, Loyola serves as a reminder that church and state can work together for the common good.