Canada's top court on Friday rejected an appeal from parents in Quebec who sought the right to keep their children out of an ethics and religious culture program taught in the province's schools.
The program, which was introduced in 2008 to elementary and high schools by the provincial Education Ministry, replaced religion classes with a curriculum covering all major faiths found in Quebec culture, including Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and aboriginal beliefs.
"Exposing children to a comprehensive presentation of various religions without forcing the children to join them does not constitute an indoctrination of students that would infringe the freedom of religion of L and J [the appellants]," Madam Justice Marie Deschamps wrote in the main ruling.
"Furthermore, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society. The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education."
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The top court said that the appellants had not proven that the ethics and religion course infringed their freedom of religion, nor that the refusal of the school board to exempt their children had violated their constitutional rights.
In 2009, Quebec's Superior Court rejected a request from two Drummondville parents who wanted to keep their children out of the program.
After their appeal was denied in Quebec in 2010, the parents took it to the Supreme Court, which heard their case in May 2011.
When the program became mandatory in Quebec schools in May 2008, the appellants, who cannot be named under a court-ordered publication ban, had one child in elementary school and another in secondary school.
The parents wrote to the two schools to request that their children be exempt from the courses.
They claimed their children would suffer serious harm from contact with a series of beliefs that were mostly incompatible with those of the family.
The school board refused to grant the exemption, responding as other boards had to similar requests. The Quebec minister of education publicly stated that there would be no exemptions.
When Quebec first brought in the ethics and religion course, some Catholic parents fought back, saying it interfered with their ability to pass their faith on to their children. They also argued that it infringed on their freedom of conscience and religion under the Charter of rights and Freedoms.
They wanted to pull their children out of the classes and exempt them from taking other religion classes in the future. Almost 2,000 other parents also requested exemptions from the education ministry but were denied.
In effect, the Supreme Court now has sided with the provincial government and the earlier ruling by the Quebec Court of Appeal.