The Supreme Court of Canada has decided that Loyola High School, a private Catholic high school for boys in Quebec, should be permitted to teach a portion of the province’s mandated Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) course from a Catholic perspective.
The ERC course requires that all children in public, private, and home schooling be taught about religions and religious ethics from a so-called “neutral” perspective. When the course was implemented, Loyola objected that it infringed its right to freedom of religion. When asked, the Quebec government denied Loyola’s request to teach its own proposed version of course materials.
A constitutional challenge ensued. At trial, expert testimony stated that the ERC course attempts to secularize the teaching of religion and morality, and that this transgresses the fundamental rules of the Catholic Church.
In its decision, the SCC held that Loyola must teach about other religions and ethics from a neutral perspective but could teach Catholic ethics from a Catholic perspective. Four of the seven members of the court that heard the appeal said it should go back to the Quebec government for reconsideration, three members accepted the school’s proposal to teach a modified ERC course in a fashion that complies with Catholic religious convictions.
Imagine if it were otherwise from the perspective of a parent who has decided his or her child should get a private religious education. Even though private school can be expensive, your religious beliefs are of fundamental personal importance, so you decided the expense and sacrifice is worth it. How would you react if the government forced your children to learn precisely that content which you were seeking to avoid by taking your child out of the public system?
A similar point could be made on behalf of non-religious parents: If your conscience compels you to shield your child from any and all religious education, should the government be able to completely disregard your wishes?
John Stuart Mill, in his famous work “On Liberty,” warned that state education can be a contrivance for moulding young impressionable children to be exactly like one another in a manner that pleases the predominant power in government. This moulding, if successful, establishes despotism over the mind of pupils. Compare this warning to Quebec’s stated goal to develop a society in which different religious values and beliefs can coexist without conflict. The chosen means of accomplishing this is to teach children that all religions are equally viable alternatives. And this is to mould students to accept a proposition explicitly rejected by many parents.
Displacing individual rights to achieve a state goal is hardly laudable. In fact, it’s the blueprint for history’s most atrocious violations of human rights. And if parents can’t be trusted to make these decisions for their children, why should legislators be trusted?
These legislators assume they are the elites who know what’s best. Their elitist attitude enables them to subjugate the wishes of individual parents and prioritize what they perceive as the interests of society. There are few more obvious examples of significant state interference with the parental rights, school choice, and religious freedom of parents than the ERC course. Wasn’t the Charter adopted, in part, to prevent the majority hegemony from oppressing minority points of view through government power?
Compelling parents to do to their children that which they deeply oppose is immoral, even if most of us believe that the state’s goals are wise and right. And as Mill warned, education can be the perfect vehicle for an authoritarian state to indoctrinate its youth, and Quebec’s ERC course — as it was being implemented — was seeking to accomplish precisely this. Quebec’s goals may seem innocuous to most of us, but the principle behind it is unsettling-the government knows best and has licence to mould upcoming generations into compliance, without regard to individual liberties.
And what of the SCC’s role in all of this? The institution charged with upholding the Charter by withstanding the state’s intrusion upon individual liberties. In this case, the SCC has done its duty to Canadians by allowing Loyola to maintain its Catholic perspective on significant portions of the ERC course materials.
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