Attorney Mark Philliips represented Loyola High School at the Supreme Court of Canada on Mar. 24. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Supreme Court told Loyola is "not asking for the moon"

  • March 25, 2014

OTTAWA - A Catholic school cannot be neutral when teaching Catholicism "otherwise it is not a Catholic school," said a lawyer representing Montreal's Loyola High School in arguments before the Supreme Court of Canada.

"Loyola is not asking for the moon here," said attorney Mark Phillips. "We want to be true to who we are . . . and we want that respected."

Loyola, a private boys' school operated by the Jesuits, is seeking an exemption to the province of Quebec's mandatory directive for all schools to teach world religions and ethics from a purely secular perspective. Loyola won that right in a 2010 court decision but lost on appeal to a higher court, which led the school to file a Supreme Court appeal in a case that has repercussions for religious freedom rights.

Arguments were heard on Mar. 24 on whether religious freedom is both an individual and collective right.

Phillips told the court Loyola was not seeking an exemption from the program, only the opportunity to teach the world religions and ethics course from a Catholic perspective. He said Loyola agreed with the objectives and content of the province's Ethics and Religious Culture program (ERC), but objected to its requirement that teachers adopt a "neutral" stance while presenting material.

The problem is Loyola is "forced to disconnect from its own tradition when teaching its own faith and forced to take no position on ethics," Phillips said. A Catholic school can and should teach other religions from a neutral standpoint, but it cannot adopt a neutral standpoint in relation to teaching about Catholicism, "otherwise it is not a Catholic school," Phillips said.

As for ethics, Phillips gave as an example a student who wished to be a playboy. Under the ERC's demands of neutrality, the teacher could say nothing about the Catholic ethical position but would instead have to act as a neutral facilitator.

Arguing for the Attorney General of Quebec, attorney Benoit Boucher said the ERC objective is to encourage respect for differences and the common good. He rejected the idea the course infringed on Loyola's religious freedom.

"The objective is not to impose moral rules or study the doctrine," Boucher said. Instead, its object is to encourage reflection and dialogue and, to do so, the teacher must show impartiality and avoid influencing the points of view of the students, he said.

Loyola would be free to teach Catholicism from a Catholic point of view at other times, Boucher said. But for 250 hours during the high-school years, Loyola would be required to adopt a neutrality stance to teach the ERC; otherwise it could be fully Catholic, he argued.

Quebec has also argued a religious corporation cannot have a conscience or be said to have a religious belief.

An array of interveners, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Archdiocese of Montreal, the Catholic Civil Rights League, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Christian Legal Fellowship and the World Sikh Organization, argued on the side of Loyola. No interveners argued on the side of the Attorney General of Quebec.

One intervener warned Canada's reputation as a free and democratic society was at stake. Others argued Quebec's campaign to bring in the secularist Quebec Charter of Values is a sign of hostility towards religious expression.

The Catholic Civil Rights League, in a joint-intervention with other Christian groups, argued for the religious freedom of institutions. In modern Canada, it is virtually impossible for religious groups to manifest without organizing through a legal corporation, said Ranjan Agarwal.

"If a corporation is formed for the exercise of religious belief, then that corporation should enjoy the protection of the Charter," he said. "It's practically impossible for religious groups to operate without the protection of legal personality. Without it, it's impossible to buy or lease land or buildings for holding worship services, engaging in charitable work or disseminating the faith through educational institutions."

Robert Reynolds, representing the Christian Legal Fellowship told the court international laws "take seriously the right of parents to choose their children's moral and religious education." He said the state has "taken upon itself to teach religious and ethics in the schools in Quebec."

"In order to do so, it has developed its own conception," he said. "It claims to be neutral but is fundamentally hostile to how most religions view themselves."

The ERC requires schools to "adopt the state's agnostic approach," and its message is that "all religions are of equal value, that all are equally false or at the very least, truth is irrelevant," he argued.

Attorney Albertos Polizogopoulos, arguing for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), pointed out the Supreme Court had been "unequivocal" in its support of "the right to manifest religious beliefs without state interference."

But the Quebec government's "public campaign" to "remove public manifestations of religious symbols" and outwardly religious persons from the public service, shows the government is "hostile to religion in general in the public square," he said.

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