Ottawa, ON March 19, 2015 – Perhaps it is fitting on the feast day of the patron saint of Canada, St. Joseph, that Loyola High School has won a major victory for religious rights of parents and students, given its victory in Loyola High School v. Quebec (Attorney General) released today by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC).
The Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) intervened in Loyola’s appeal to the SCC, and welcomes the decision as a strong endorsement of religious freedoms, especially as exercised by institutions and communities of faith.
All seven judges agreed that the Ministry of Education in Quebec had infringed on Loyola’s constitutional rights in denying its “equivalent” alternative program under the province’s Ethics and Religious Culture curriculum in 2008.
A four judge majority ruled that the Quebec Ministry of Education was wrong to deny the exemption to Loyola in the delivery of the curriculum from a Catholic perspective. In the words of Madam Justice Abella: “I agree with Loyola that the Minister’s decision had a serious impact on religious freedom in this context. To tell a Catholic school how to explain its faith [pursuant to the ERC program] undermines the liberty of the members of its community who have chosen to give effect to the collective dimension of their religious beliefs by participating in a denominational school … Although the state’s purpose here is secular, requiring Loyola’s teachers to take a neutral posture even about Catholicism means that the state is telling them how to teach the very religion that animates Loyola’s identity. It amounts to requiring a Catholic institution to speak about Catholicism in terms defined by the state rather than by its own understanding of Catholicism.” In an important nod to parental rights, Justice Abella continued, “It also interferes with the rights of parents to transmit the Catholic faith to their children, not because it requires neutral discussion of other faiths and ethical systems, but because it prevents a Catholic discussion of Catholicism. This ignores the fact that an essential ingredient of the vitality of a religious community is the ability of its members to pass on their beliefs to their children, whether through instruction in the home or participation in communal institutions.”
The Court ordered that the Quebec Ministry of Education issue the exemption for the Loyola program based on its ruling.
In fact, a three judge minority opinion would have gone farther, and would have issued the requested exemption from the Quebec ERC program outright, rather than force Loyola to have to engage in a further battle over its rights, following seven years of litigation since it commenced its effort to seek accommodation of its program.
The CCRL intervened in the case, together with the Faith and Freedom Alliance, the Association of Quebec Catholic Parents and the Coptic Christian Association of Montreal, to maintain opposition to the ERC curriculum, which purports to stipulate a “neutral” position on religion, while demeaning religious understandings generally through enforced moral relativism. It should be noted that the ERC curriculum continues to apply to Quebec public schools, for which religious parents have not been provided exemptions, following a previous ruling of the Supreme Court in 2012.
While the League welcomes the Supreme Court’s analysis applicable to Loyola, we urge that Quebec, and all remaining provincial and territorial systems, reflect seriously on the recognition of religious rights of students, parents and others in our shared public education systems, rather than limiting such rights to those who can afford privately funded education.
In particular, parents of children in Quebec’s public schools should be afforded better recognition of their religious sensibilities, as a matter of justice, without having to incur the costs of privately funded education. Parents are the first educators of children, and the state should not intrude on deeply held religious understandings without adequate cause.
Madam Justice Abella for the majority stated as follows: “A secular state does not — and cannot — interfere with the beliefs or practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests. Nor can a secular state support or prefer the practices of one group over those of another … The pursuit of secular values means respecting the right to hold and manifest different religious beliefs. A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.”
The case is a significant response in favour of a robust understanding of religious freedoms, especially communal religious freedoms, which were expressly outlined by all judges in their ruling today, for which the CCRL is thankful.
St. Joseph, pray for us.
About the CCRL
Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) (www.ccrl.ca) assists in creating conditions within which Catholic teachings can be better understood, cooperates with other organizations in defending civil rights in Canada, and opposes defamation and discrimination against Catholics on the basis of their beliefs. The CCRL was founded in 1985 as an independent lay organization with a large nationwide membership base. The CCRL is a Canadian non-profit organization entirely supported by the generosity of its members.
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