Canada's Supreme Court ruled Feb. 17 the program does not violate the religious freedom of Catholic parents because they were unable to prove the course harms their children.

Disappointment greets Quebec ERC ruling

By 
  • February 21, 2012

OTTAWA - Parents’ groups and organizations defending religious freedom have reacted with disappointment to a Supreme Court of Canada decision concerning the rights of parents to exempt their children from Quebec’s mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program.

Canada’s highest court ruled Feb. 17 the program does not violate the religious freedom of Catholic parents because they were unable to prove the course harms their children.

The decision concerns the so-called Drummondville parents, known as L and J, who fought to be able to withdraw their children from the Quebec ethics course on religious freedom grounds. The parents said they wanted to be able to raise their children in the Catholic faith, and the course would confuse their children and undermine their efforts.

“L and J have not proven that the ERC program infringed their freedom of religion, or consequently, that the school board’s refusal to exempt their children from the ERC course violated their constitutional right,” the decision says.

The parents and several interveners argued the ERC is not neutral but indoctrinates children into a form of moral relativism. The court said the evidence does not support the view that the Quebec education ministry’s purpose is to promote a philosophy of relativism or influence children’s beliefs.

“The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education,” the court said.

Groups representing Quebec parents reacted with dismay.

“Following this ruling, all parents who object to this course must demonstrate concrete harm it has caused to their children,” said Le Regroupement chrétien pour le droit parental en education (The Christian Coalition for Parental Rights in Education). To qualify for an exemption, they must expose their children to the harm, obtain evidence and then seek an exemption after they have experienced this intrusion on their rights, it said.

The coalition, which intervened on behalf of the Drummondville parents, appealed to the government to reconsider the mandatory nature of the program that it said offends the beliefs and convictions of both parents and children.

About 2,000 Quebec parents have sought to have their children exempted from the course. La Coalition pour la liberté en éducation (CLÉ) pointed out that the parents never challenged the constitutional validity of the ERC, only the constitutionality of withholding exemptions. CLÉ called the decision a setback for the rights of all Quebec parents against the power of the Ministry of Education. It called the demand that parents produce evidence of harm “exorbitant” for the average person. The notion that the school operates as an extension of parental authority seems to have been replaced in favour of state imposition of values in defiance of the reservations of private citizens and parents, it said.

CLÉ promised to continue its fight for academic freedom for all Quebeckers and said it was not ruling out a further challenge.

The Catholic Civil Rights League, the Christian Legal Fellowship and the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada also expressed disappointment with the decision. The League has called it a denial of parental rights.

The decision drew cautious responses, however, from the Quebec Catholic bishops and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. They promised to study the decision and monitor further developments.

“Because education in Canada is under provincial and territorial responsibility, it is the Catholic bishops of each province or territory who respond to questions regarding their specific educational systems,” said a CCCB statement. “All bishops across the country will be carefully studying the decision...

“If the bishops decide the ruling may raise questions that extend beyond provincial responsibilities, they will discuss any such concerns at their regional episcopal assemblies and possibly also at the meetings of their national assembly.”

The Assembly of Catholic Bishops of Quebec said the bishops will continue to maintain an attitude of openness and prudence towards the program. General Secretary Bertrand Ouellet said in an interview the bishops’ preference all along had been for parental choice, but “the government does not seek the approval of the bishops.”

In a statement the Quebec bishops said they acknowledged the decision of the Quebec government to go ahead with the ERC in 2008, and recognized the value of its major goals: “the recognition of others and the pursuit of the common good.”

“We believe that all young people need appropriate training to be able to appreciate the place of religion— especially Catholicism — in the history and current culture of Quebec,” the bishops said. “This course can contribute to the extent that it respects the freedom of conscience of the young people and their parents and where it present well the different religious traditions.”

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