Montreal

Hasidic couple's lawsuit against Quebec could change what's taught at religious schools

Yohanen and Shifra Lowen, two former Hasidic Jews who claim the Quebec government didn't do enough to ensure they received a proper education, are headed to trial in a case that could reshape how the province oversees private religious schools.

Yohanen and Shifra Lowen finally get their day in court against the Quebec government

Yohanan and Shifra Lowen, two former Hasidic Jews who claim the Quebec government didn't do enough to ensure they received a proper education, are headed to trial in a case that could reshape how the province oversees private religious schools.

The trial against the province and schools in the couple's former community gets underway Monday in Quebec Superior Court, five years after they first filed their lawsuit.

They aren't seeking money. They want a declaratory judgment which, if they win, would force the province to take steps to ensure children who attend private religious schools are taught the provincial curriculum.

Yohanan Lowen, who first launched the legal action, alleges that, when he finished school at 18, he could barely add or subtract, couldn't read and write in English or French and was left unequipped to find work outside his community.

He broke ties with Tash, a secluded ultra-orthodox Hasidic enclave in the suburb of Boisbriand, Que., more than a decade ago. He now lives in Montreal with Shifra, whose legal name is Clara Wasserstein, and their four children.

Representatives from the local school board, the province and youth protection services are among those expected to testify at the trial.

Similar legal challenges involving former Hasids are making their way through the court system in New York state and Israel.

Quebec has struggled for years with how to deal with schools that don't comply with the provincial curriculum. In 2016, one ultra-Orthodox Jewish school that didn't follow the rules was raided by police.

Pierre Anctil, a professor at the University of Ottawa specializing in Jewish history in Montreal, said the trial will bring forth a conversation about the place of religion in schools, something the province has wrestled with for years.

"It's very complex," Anctil said.

"If you belong to a religious minority that say, doesn't believe in the theory of evolution and does not accept that history is an important discipline, what do you do with that? Basically it's a much broader problem. He brings it from the Jewish Hasidic ultra-Orthodox point of view, but it touches on many more groups."

What to expect under the CAQ?

Under the previous Liberal government, the province reached a compromise with several schools, whereby religion is taught at school and the curriculum taught at home, under the supervision of the English Montreal School Board.

But much has changed since then.

The Coalition Avenir Québec government abolished school boards as part of an overhaul of the education system passed into law Saturday, putting into doubt the future of the agreement.

Education Minister Jean-François Roberge abolished school boards as part of an overhaul of the education system. (Sylvain Roy Roussel/CBC)

As well, as Anctil noted, the CAQ has taken a stronger position on ensuring the secularism of the state, notably with Bill 21, a law that prohibits public workers in positions of authority from wearing religious symbols.

They may, in fact, welcome a ruling that suggests the province should do more to ensure the education of students in religious schools, Anctil said.

"This new government is much less tolerant of religious beliefs or public religious beliefs or the public face of religious beliefs as has been shown by Bill 21," he said.

"It all depends … I don't think a single individual can bring all that change, but a court might decide in favour of forcing the Ministry of Education to be more vigilant, and it remains to be seen how it's going to be interpreted politically."

The Lowens and their lawyer, Clara Poissant-Lespérance, declined to comment ahead of the long-awaited trial. 

The Education Ministry and David Banon, a lawyer for the Hasidic schools, did not return a request for comment.

About the Author

Benjamin Shingler is a journalist with CBC Montreal. Follow him on Twitter @benshingler.

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