New school year, and trouble’s brewing

  • September 12, 2012

Bound to be further developments for parental rights, religious freedom

 

Parental rights and religious freedom in schools have been under the microscope in Canada’s two largest provinces over the past year.  The arrival of a new school year is bound to bring further developments.

Let’s begin with Quebec, where parental objections to a mandatory school course led to a Supreme Court of Canada challenge. In 2008, Quebec introduced a course called Ethics and Religious Culture to replace existing courses in religious and moral instruction being taught in Catholic, Protestant and non-sectarian elementary and secondary schools. The curriculum change affected both public and private schools.

All children were required to take the new course. That prompted two parents, supported by a group of many more, to bring a case in Quebec Superior Court when requests to exempt their children from the course were denied. The parents argued that the mandatory course violated their religious convictions because it taught relativism — i.e. all religious beliefs are equally valid — and this  conflicted with their Roman Catholic beliefs.

Roughly 2,000 applications for exemptions had been submitted by Quebec parents. All were refused. Some parents removed their children from the class anyway, despite the threat of sanctions, including suspension of the students.

By refusing to make the course optional or allow exemptions, the state essentially foisted one belief system on students and their families. Polls have consistently shown that more than 70 per cent of Quebeckers believe parents should be allowed to withdraw their children from the course and also have the option of enrolling them in traditional Catholic or Protestant religious instruction. 

The case found support among a number of religious and civil liberty associations and was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.  But the appeal failed. The high court ruled in February 2012 that  Quebec school boards did not have to grant exemptions, stating that parents had yet to prove that the new course interfered with their right to religious freedom.

In effect, the court asserted that all Quebec parents (including the more than 2,000 parents who sought exemptions) must first expose their children to the new course and obtain evidence for their concerns. After gathering evidence, they could then re-start the process of seeking an exemption from their local school board. The Supreme Court left open the possibility of re-hearing the application, but only if it could be based on evidence to support the parents’ concerns. Still, a ruling that permits the state to impose a mandatory course on religious topics sets a troubling precedent that could be applied in other provinces when parents try to assert their rights.

The next challenge could come in Ontario, where  Bill-13, the Accepting Schools Act, became law in June following considerable input from parent and education groups. Presented as a strategy to combat bullying in schools, Bill-13 amends the Education Act to require schools to implement strategies to document and reduce bullying, and discipline the bullies.

While all parent and school groups endorse efforts to combat bullying, many are concerned that Bill-13 focusses on bullying based on sexual orientation. The preamble to the bill introduces the notion of gender as a social construct to include the “LGBTTIQ” categories of sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, two-spirited, intersex, queer and questioning).

In perhaps the most controversial provision, the bill says all schools, including Catholic schools, must permit clubs called Gay-Straight Alliances if students request them. Opponents to the bill contend that the focus on concepts that conflict with a Catholic understanding of sexual morality  challenges a constitutional right to allow Catholic schools to teach Catholic values.

Most Catholic educators and parents recognize that Bill-13 cannot be implemented in Catholic schools without clear and consistent provisions to ensure anti-bullying clubs and other activities conform to Catholic teaching. During the legislative process, Catholic trustees, educators and bishops developed a policy called Respecting Difference to address bullying in all its forms, including bullying based on sexual orientation.

The policy requires anti-bullying clubs to be guided by knowledgeable and committed staff who can address student needs while remaining faithful to Catholic teaching. That has created the potential for conflict with leaders in the gay rights movement, who have indicated that they may initiate legal proceedings against Catholic schools.

Vigilance and involvement by Catholic parents and educators is vital in supporting anti-bullying initiatives that allow all students to feel safe and welcome while at the same time ensuring that Catholic denominational rights are protected.


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