In June 2005, the National Assembly of Quebec adopted Bill 95, which changed the nature of religious and moral teaching in all schools across Quebec. Before 2008, parents could choose between Catholic, Protestant, and nonreligious options. Now all students in both public and private schools are required by law to take a course on religious culture and ethics. Even homeschoolers must receive the “equivalent” of this program, which has been applied in classrooms since September 2008 and covers all the years of primary and secondary school.
Although the Education Act provides that school boards may exempt children from certain courses for humanitarian reasons or to prevent serious harm to a child, the Ministry of Education has made it clear that it will tolerate no exceptions to this course. Thousands of parents from many different public schools have been refused the right to withdraw their children. This led the family of Daniel Jutras and Suzanne Lavallée, supported by the Coalition for Freedom in Education, to take their case to the Superior Court of Quebec in Drummondville.
On August 31, Judge Jean-Guy Dubois ruled in favor of the school board and the Ministry of Education and against the right of parents to have their child exempted from the course. He was strongly influenced by expert witness Gilles Routhier, a priest and theologian of Quebec City, who quoted Pope John Paul II (in Catechesi tradendae) as saying that knowledge of other religions can contribute to better understanding between faiths. Routhier also cited the conclusions of the first Catholic-Muslim Seminar held in Rome in November 2008, which stated that it is essential that young people be well formed in their own religion and well informed about other religions and cultures.
Both the Coalition for Freedom in Education and the Association of Catholic Parents of Quebec (APCQ) were shocked that a civil court would take upon itself the task of interpreting the position of the Catholic Church with regard to the teaching of young students. As APCQ pointed out, nothing in the Vatican documents can be interpreted to apply to young children. Traditionally in Quebec, teaching about other faiths had been reserved for students in their final two years of high school, an arrangement that parents had accepted.
Richard Décarie of the Coalition for Freedom in Education said,
The courts are qualified to rule on the sincerity of the religious or philosophical belief of the plaintiff. But the State is not in a position to referee between interpretations of religious faiths, nor should it do so in the future.
The Catholic parents, in response to the ruling, quoted passages from Pope John Paul II which show his concern that parents be respected as the prime educators and that public schools offer the choice of Catholic religious education.
One private Catholic high school, Loyola College in Montreal, also stood up to the Ministry of Education. Most of its parents requested that their children be exempted from the program, so the school proposed to the ministry that it be allowed to continue giving its own moral and religious course, which includes elements of ethics and other religious cultures, as an alternative. The ministry refused, and the school took its case to the Superior Court of Quebec in Montreal. A ruling is expected by December.
In Drummondville, experts who gave testimony in favor of the parents included Louis O’Neill and Guy Durand, Catholic theologians; Gary Caldwell, a Protestant sociologist; and David Mascré, a French Catholic philosopher. In Montreal, Douglas Farrow, a professor of religious studies, and Gérard Lévesque, a Catholic philosopher, gave testimony in support of the parents.
The attorney general of Quebec represented the ministry against Loyola and intervened in the Drummondville case, calling as expert witnesses, in both places, Georges Leroux, a secular-humanist philosopher, and Jacques Pettigrew, a bureaucrat from the ministry. Gilles Routhier witnessed only against the parents in Drummondville.
On May 5, Zenon Cardinal Grocho-lewski, prefect of Catholic education at the Vatican, sent a letter to the Catholic bishops in Quebec reminding them of the right of parents, defined by Catholic social teaching, to direct the moral and religious education of their children. He also warned against the dangers of courses on moral and religious culture. If classroom instruction in religion merely sets before the students different faiths in a comparative or neutral manner, the result may be confusion, relativism, or indifference. Judge Dubois did not allow the letter to be introduced as evidence in Drummondville, because it became public after the opening of the court proceedings on May 12.
The Assembly of Quebec Catholic Bishops has maintained its stance, made clear in March 2008, that the course should continue to be taught until sufficient time has passed for its effects to become clear. It has not given its support to Cardinal Grocho-lewski’s position, to the parents requesting exemption, or to Loyola College’s request to be dispensed from the program. Only Marc Cardinal Ouellet, archbishop of Quebec City and Catholic primate of Canada, has spoken publicly in favor of the parents’ position.
Why do the Association of Catholic Parents of Quebec and the Coalition for Freedom in Education object to this program?
The course trivializes religion by placing all religions, spiritual teachings, religious movements, and views of life on equal footing. In giving an account of the origin of the Earth, for example, the story of Creation in the Jewish and Christian traditions, the Yin and the Yang, and the story of the primordial frog are all treated as if they were of equal value.
The course misrepresents religion by leaving out the dimension of transcendence. Among the “names of the divine,” there is no mention of Jesus Christ Who is, in the Christian teaching, God incarnate.>
The course does not provide a full overview of each religion, only a part of each across a spectrum of themes. For example, the course teaches the celebration of Christmas, Sukkoth (the Jewish feast of tabernacles), Wesak (the Buddhist feast of the full moon), Diwali (the Hindu feast of lights), and Mothers’ Day. It also introduces children to the Koran, the Vedas, the Tripitaka, and the Bible, as well as various methods of prayer and meditation.
The course violates the privacy of each child and his family, because he is required to share with others the religious beliefs and practices of his family or religious community. And it interferes with parental authority, for the child is expected to question the beliefs and convictions he has been taught at home or at church. He is expected to justify his decision whether or not to modify his convictions after having encountered those of others.
In the course, a child does not learn what is right and wrong, but that different individuals have different ways of viewing moral questions. Thus, at the beginning of adolescence, children are being required to develop independence in deciding moral questions before their thought processes are fully developed and before they have sufficient experience to make mature judgments about the impact of ethical decisions. Of course, tolerance is valued more than any other virtue—tolerance not simply of other people but of all points of view. Such tolerance contradicts the core beliefs of many religions.
The course identifies the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms as the main point of reference to develop common public values—and such values are frequently less demanding on the moral plane than religious values. This deprives the child of a strong moral standard to sustain him throughout life.
In short, this state-imposed and judicially enforced curriculum seeks to convert the children of Quebec to a new religion. Is it any wonder, then, that so many conservative Christians are voicing strong opposition?