Parental rights in the spotlight

  • June 12, 2009
The Alberta government recently enacted controversial changes to its human rights code that affirm the fundamental right of parents to intercede in the classroom on matters related to the moral education of their children.

In a decision regarded as a victory for religious freedom, Bill 44 amended Alberta’s Human Rights Act to give parents the right to remove their children without academic penalty from classes which include discussion of sexual orientation, sexuality or religion. The amendment requires teachers to notify parents if the sensitive topics are scheduled for inclusion in formal lessons. Informal or “incidental” classroom discussion is not covered by the requirement.

Parental rights in the classroom have become a heated issue in Canada. In addition to the Alberta case, there are similar challenges ongoing in Quebec and British Columbia. But Alberta is the first province to explicitly enshrine in a human rights’ code the authority of parents as first educators of their children.

Because most of us have opinions about what should be taught in school, especially to our own children, reaction by media commentators and in letters to the editor has been strong, and almost evenly divided between those who support the parental rights’ principle and those who see it as an effort to undermine the equality rights of minorities.

In Quebec, the province is implementing a compulsory ethics and culture course, which replaces traditional Catholic, Protestant and non-denominational moral instruction. Objections from Catholic and other religious groups centre on the relativistic approach to religious doctrine, especially at younger ages. About 1,700 objecting Quebec families have applied for exemption and been refused. Some have, nonetheless, withdrawn their children from the classes. Six evangelical Christian students who refuse to attend the classes are being threatened with expulsion. At least two legal challenges have begun and decisions are pending.

For its part, the Quebec government is committed to the new course in all schools, public or private. (The latter are permitted to offer religious instruction in addition to the new course.) Lending an ironic twist to all of this, the Ministry of Education’s foundational document for the Ethics and Religious Culture program declares that “respecting the fundamental right to freedom of conscience and religion is the basis of all ethics and religious education.”

In British Columbia, concerns about parental authority go back several years, when the government settled a human rights complaint from two homosexual-rights activists, Peter and Murray Corren, by signing an agreement that the Ministry of Education would introduce “non-heterosexual realities” into the entire K to 12 curriculum. Moreover, the Ministry agreed that it would discourage parents from withdrawing even their youngest children from classes where homosexual conduct is discussed. “There’s no point in us making the curriculum more queer-positive,” said Peter Corren, “if people can take their kids out.”

In practice, in reply to questions from organizations, school districts representing over half of the public school student population acknowledge that they are obliged to accommodate freedom of conscience and religion, including the right to withdraw from some classes, the Corren Agreement notwithstanding. The remainder have been equivocal.

There is certainly nothing new or unusual in schools sending a note home when sensitive information is on the curriculum. Many schools do so even where the law does not require it. Some Albertans have expressed concern about making this a matter for the Human Rights Tribunal, rather than a matter for the Education Act. It may well be preferable to leave the matter to education legislation for the sake of fairness to both sides, and a faster resolution should conflicts occur. But that is a matter of strategy and implementation, not principle.

As a matter of principle, parental rights must be recognized. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and religion is a protected ground under human rights legislation. Church teaching and tradition make it clear that parents are the first educators of their children. This right is also spelled out in Article 26 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

By insisting that any course touching on important moral topics is mandatory, without the possibility of exemption, the state would be denying an essential aspect of religious freedom and parental rights in schools.

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