Former Loyola high school principal Paul Donovan, left, and Catholic parent John Zucchi, were involved in the seven-year battle to ensure that teachers could teach the ethics and religious culture course from the faith perspective rather than the secular way as required by the Quebec education policy. Left photo by Michael Swan, right photo by Deborah Gyapong

Loyola’s victory

  • March 26, 2015

Much is being made — and deservedly so — of Loyola High School’s victory on behalf of religious freedom. The Jesuit-run Montreal school deserves praise for sticking it out through a seven-year court slog that has made Canada a better place for people of all religions.

But winning an important Supreme Court battle is only one part of the story. What the Loyola case demonstrates is the importance for Catholics, indeed for people of all religions, to persistently and publicly assert their religious rights. Those rights are enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms but, as the saying goes, use ‘em or lose ‘em.

Loyola is the immediate beneficiary of a Supreme Court decision that allows the school to teach portions of Quebec’s secular Ethics and Religious Culture program from a Catholic perspective. But this was not only a victory for the Jesuit school. It was a win for everyone who supports a definition of religious freedom that includes the right to infuse religion in their day-to-day lives.  

It was an impressive court victory that not only establishes a legal precedent, but serves as a lesson for all religious communities on the responsibility to assert their rights. A person’s religion is an integral element of their identity. That is why religious and conscience rights are protected in the Charter. When a person is marginalized for religious reasons the individual’s rightful place in society is diminished.

Yet the trend in secular societies is to do just that, to discredit the place of religion in schools, workplaces and other institutions. That movement will succeed unless it is adamantly opposed in judicial, political and community arenas. The Loyola case showed how it can be done.

It was a long fight. But in the end the Supreme Court was persuaded that Quebec’s brand of secularism, which sought to stifle religion even in a private Catholic school, has no place in a culturally and religiously diverse society. The court said that secularism doesn’t mean the absence of religion but “seeks to protect it as a key element of pluralism.”

Our only disappointment is that the ruling failed to go farther. It granted Loyola the right to bring a Catholic perspective to its religious studies, but failed to grant a broader freedom to apply Catholic teaching to other religious and moral situations. For example, said one judge, it is “inconceivable” that a Catholic teacher should be neutral during a classroom discussion on premarital sex. Yet that is exactly what is required in Quebec and is still supported by this ruling.

But in a broader context, the Supreme Court came down strongly on the side of religious freedom. The court’s decision offers a valuable lesson on what can be accomplished when determined people assert their rights.

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