The Supreme Court of Canada

Anonymity and ignorance

  • February 28, 2012

On Feb. 17, the Supreme Court of Canada rendered its decision on a case that tested the right of parents to exempt their children from Quebec’s Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) course. The case attracted many intervenors because the decision could impact other cases that question the lengths government can go to impose curriculum against parental wishes.

About one month earlier, the Ontario Catholic School Trustees’ Association released a report, “Respecting Difference,” which set guidelines for promoting equity and respect for all students in Catholic schools. It followed months of controversy surrounding “gay-straight alliances” in Ontario’s publicly funded schools. While there are differences between the two scenarios, both concern a provincial government trying to impose a school policy despite objections from parents.

In the Quebec case, parents argued that not being able to withdraw their children from the controversial religious course violated their right of freedom of religion. But the court dismissed the appeal (though not, however, the concept of a right to be exempt from the course). Justice Marie Deschamps said the parents failed to show that the ERC course interfered with their ability to transmit their faith to their children.

“Parents are free to pass their personal beliefs on to their children if they so wish. However, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society,” Deschamps wrote.

By its decision, the court is further blessing the incursion of the state into family autonomy. The judges didn’t fully shut the door on the parents, but placed the onus on them to gather evidence from course materials and classroom interactions to prove the course is harmful to the faith of their children. If that can be obtained, a process that would take years, the court might re-hear the case.

The Quebec case could have implications in other provinces. For example, if the Ontario government reintroduces the sexual-education policy it withdrew in 2010 amid a storm of protest, it’s possible the Quebec decision could mean parents could now be forced to send their children to classes they find objectionable in order to gather evidence of harm before they could seek an exemption.

Any news story involving schools provokes strong reaction in the media. In the Quebec case, many said that including any religion in public schools is objectionable, while others found this course to be inadequate. Well-informed, coherent commentary can be found in most national news reports, as well as in the submissions of any intervenor in the appeal, or that of the plaintiffs or the respondents. The views of people with no real knowledge of the case but plenty of time on their hands can be found on the discussion boards of national newspapers and broadcast outlets.

News reports about “Respecting Difference,” while generally balanced in themselves, sparked substantial response from people who think separate schools should be eliminated. This is certainly not a rare opinion in Ontario, and there are people who can express it without anti-Catholic or anti-religious sentiment. Most of Ontario’s newspapers have printed columns in favour of de-funding, and usually get plenty of response in letters to the editor. Again, for opinion not restricted by fact, courtesy or even common sense, the message boards will always be replete when this is in the news.

It’s understandable that media outlets would open their web sites to a full range of commentary. It allows them to publish more comment without the space constraints of hard copy. However, a case could be made for ending the practice of anonymity. Knowing that you’ll be identified in a submission causes a lot of fact-checking, acknowledgement of other opinions and, hopefully, a tone that is interesting as well as readable.

As these school conflicts are unlikely to be resolved soon, online editors may want to consider asking their contributors to make their identities known. Otherwise, opinions such as “Satan is just as legitimate a god as the rest” and “we have to stop these wacky religious fanatics somehow” will continue to be expressed under the banners of national news outlets.

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