The law and moral instruction in the classroom: What's a parent to do?

Lorna Dueck looks at parental rights and religious freedom in the Supreme Court challenge over Quebec's new ethics and religion curriculum.

The Supreme Court hears the challenges this week to Quebec's new ethics curriculum

Freedom of conscience, freedom of religion and parental authority will all be on trial Wednesday as a Quebec case involving a parent's right to pass on religious beliefs and moral values gets underway before the Supreme Court of Canada.

At issue is the new Quebec curriculum on moral instruction called Ethics and Religious Culture, introduced in 2008 to try to accommodate the more diverse beliefs of the province's changing population.

The new ERC is a mandatory course in all of Quebec's elementary and high schools and was designed to replace the moral instruction that had been set for centuries by the province's Catholic and Protestant school boards.

Its expanded curriculum includes all the major world religions as well as native spirituality, while still reflecting Quebec's Christian roots and citizenry.

Advocates of the ERC point out that the material is packed with nearly 90 per cent Christian teaching and is superior to the catechism model.

Quebec Education Minister Line Beauchamp inherits the ethics in the classroom debate. The former minister of the environment took over from her embattled predecessor, Michelle Courchesne, in August 2010. (Clement Allard/Canadian Press)

Opponents say the material puts all religion on an equal footing and promotes relativism, while at the same time eroding the freedom (of religion) to teach that one's chosen faith is more correct than others.

It's a maddening quandary that has split the religious community.

Some are grateful for a reasoned, thorough integration of the ERC into schools. Others are outraged over the presumed curbing of their own beliefs, while others, still, refuse to budge over the good memories they have of the older, confessional system.

The result is a surprising mix of otherwise diverse interests locking arms to fight against what they see as an imposed ERC worldview under the guise of religious neutrality.

In the against column we have the secular Civil Liberties Association uniting its voice with the Catholic Schools Trustee Association, the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and Christian Legal Fellowship.

There's a publication ban on the names of the parents who have been leading the fight against the new curriculum.

But we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that the Drummondville case, as it has become known (S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chenes), is ultimately about the kids.

Instruction versus education

While I may think that all this legal wrangling doesn't put us Christians in a good light, the case is more complicated than that.

For one thing, it makes us wrestle with our beliefs about how spirituality is imparted to a child.

Glenn Smith, a lecturer at McGill's faculty of education, teaches the Ethics and Religious Culture course to future teachers and is watching the Drummondville case closely.

"What the parents want is instruction, not education about religion," says Smith, "and the publicly funded school is not for that.

"Faith is the personal and corporate commitments we make out of our worldviews," he says. "The ERC course teaches religious and worldview phenomena but not from a faith perspective. That dimension is left for the home."

Others, however, say the home is eroded by the ERC because the mandatory course can pit the authority of the parent (and the family's chosen faith instructors) against the authority of the classroom teacher, who is charged with presenting religious ideals as neutral.

Montreal's prestigious, private Jesuit school, Loyola High, already went to court over this, seeking an exemption from the mandatory curriculum.

Over 600 parents from the school had complained that their Catholic teachers were being required to teach things about Catholicism and other faiths that they as parents don't believe.

A potent symbol of Quebec's Catholic past, a statue of Brother Andre - the province's first male saint- stands in the chapel of St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal. (Christinne Muschi/Reuters)

Principal Paul Donovan argued that the portion of the ERC curriculum that deals with situational and conversational ethics contradicts Loyola's educational philosophy.  "Is there a way to determine what's right and what's wrong, or do we just say that everything stays status quo, and nobody can ever know?" he asked rhetorically.

What the Jesuit instructors at Loyola want is to continue to be able to teach absolute truth, concepts from religious ideals that would conclude a wrong is always a wrong.

Last June, a strongly worded judgment by the Quebec Superior Court agreed with their fight against the ERC.

The judge, in fact, condemned the Quebec ministry's "totalitarian" attitude towards Loyola's request to decide its religious teaching. But the province isn't backing down and has launched an appeal.

Freedom to choose

Given all the hype that has been building in the faith community over this initiative, it is possible, I suppose, that even the prime minister's promised Office of Religious Freedom will be called to weigh in on this issue at some point.

The fact that Quebec families cannot opt out of these mandatory classes for their children is pushing concerned parents too far.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, for one, worries that, with the ERC, there is only one worldview being taught, that of Quebec's ministry of education.

"Imagine a child in a Canadian classroom listening to a religious studies lecture about Jesus Christ: who he is — as perceived by the government; what he did — as presented by the government; what he says — as told by the government," fellowship president Bruce Clemenger wrote in a letter, soliciting donations for the Supreme Court challenge.

"As the parent of that child, you grow increasingly uncomfortable with what your child is learning, and you are shocked to discover that there is absolutely nothing you can do about it."

Parents actually can do much back at the home, with absolute freedom, and that is to review with your children what they are being taught in school about religion and ethics.

But to ignore the heavy hand of government enforcing a set of views on your family is definitely compromised ground for freedom of religion.

That's why this case is not limited to just the differences between what you might call the conservative or liberal views within religious communities, and why anyone concerned with freedom of religion should see this confrontation as important.

The great rule of all religions, that we treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves, is implicit in the Drummondville case, and it sounds like the Supreme Court will need the gifts of Solomon to figure it all out.