INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Canada's Supreme Court upholds religious freedom
, April 11, 2015
In a landmark decision with implications for the debate over religious freedom in Australia, Canada’s highest court has ruled that the secularist government of Quebec denied religious freedom to a Catholic college, in relation to a mandatory course on Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC).
Canada’s Supreme Court
The province’s education ministry insisted that the Ethics and Religious Culture course had to be taught only from a secular perspective.
Loyola College, established by the Jesuits in the 1840s, applied for an exemption from this requirement, and proposed teaching the course from a Catholic perspective, which was respectful of other faiths and traditions.
The ministry refused to give the college an exemption, and insisted that the Catholic school comply with the government’s position, despite the fact that the law establishing the course made provision for exemptions.
The college appealed, and the matter ended up in the Canadian Supreme Court.
The college was supported by a number of other Christian churches and faiths, including the Canadian Council of Churches, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Christian Legal Fellowship, the World Sikh Organisation of Canada, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Montreal, and the Catholic Church.
All seven of the Supreme Court judges held that the government of Quebec had denied the right of freedom of religion protected by Canadian law.
Three of them held that the province’s action was unlawful and should be overruled completely.
The majority held that the matter should be referred back to the province to negotiate with the college.
The majority decision said: “The context in this case is state regulation of religious schools. This raises the question of how to balance robust protection for the values underlying religious freedom with the values of a secular state.
“The state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that students in all schools are capable, as adults, of conducting themselves with openness and respect as they confront cultural and religious differences. A vibrant, multicultural democracy depends on the capacity of its citizens to engage in thoughtful and inclusive forms of deliberation.
“But 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 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 judges added: “Loyola is a private Catholic institution. The collective aspects of religious freedom — in this case, the collective manifestation and transmission of Catholic beliefs — are a crucial part of its claim.
“The Minister’s decision requires Loyola to teach Catholicism, the very faith that animates its character, from a neutral perspective.
“Although the state’s purpose is secular, this amounts to requiring a Catholic institution to speak about its own religion in terms defined by the state rather than by its own understanding.
“This demonstrably interferes with the manner in which the members of an institution formed for the purpose of transmitting Catholicism can teach and learn about the Catholic faith.
“It also undermines the liberty of the members of the community who have chosen to give effect to the collective dimension of their religious beliefs by participating in a denominational school.”
The court pointed out that the program was intended to give flexibility to religious schools to implement the program in their own ways.
Judges of the Canadian Supreme Court
“The department’s own publications support the conclusion that the legislative and regulatory scheme is intended to operate in a way that respects the religious freedoms of individuals and groups in the school system.
“In a 2005 ministerial proposal, the Minister stated that ‘[r]especting the fundamental right to the freedom of conscience and religion is the basis of all ethics and religious education’.”
The judges added, “By using as [the] starting point the premise that only a secular approach to teaching the ERC Program can suffice as equivalent, the protection contemplated by the exemption provision at issue was rendered illusory.
“The legislative and regulatory scheme is designed to be flexible and to permit private schools to deviate from the generic ERC Program, so long as its objectives are met.
“The Minister’s definition of equivalency casts this intended flexibility in the narrowest of terms, and limits deviation to a degree beyond that which is necessary to ensure the objectives of the ERC Program are met. This led to a substantial infringement on Loyola’s religious freedom.”
“In the context of the present case, Loyola’s teachers must be permitted to describe and explain Catholic doctrine and ethical beliefs from the Catholic perspective.
“Loyola’s teachers must describe and explain the ethical beliefs and doctrines of other religions in an objective and respectful way.
“Loyola’s teachers must maintain a respectful tone of debate, but where the context of the classroom discussion requires it, they may identify what Catholic beliefs are, why Catholics follow those beliefs, and the ways in which other ethical or doctrinal propositions do not accord with those beliefs.”
The Supreme Court decision has galvanised the Christian community of Canada against militant secularists who are determined to drive Christianity out of the public square.
In a comment on the case, Derek From, a lawyer with the Canadian Constitution Foundation, said: “Imagine 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 [are] 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?”
He added: “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?
“These legislators assume they are the elites who know what’s best. 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....
“Quebec’s goals may seem innocuous to most of us, but the principle behind it is unsettling — that government knows best and has licence to mould upcoming generations into compliance, without regard to individual liberties.”
He concluded by saying that the Supreme Court of Canada “has done its duty to Canadians by blocking Quebec’s attempt to indoctrinate students, and allowing Loyola to maintain its Catholic perspective on significant portions of the ERC course materials”.
Commenting on the court judgment, former Loyola principal Paul Donovan, who initiated the college’s fight against the course, said: “The Ethics and Religious Culture program is a way to teach students to recognise the value of others and pursuit of the common good.
“These are laudable goals that we share and wish to inculcate in our students. However, we do not believe that religious values in the context of our school need to be suppressed to accomplish this.”
In a number of countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States and New Zealand, people and businesses owned by people holding sincere religious beliefs have been found guilty of breaching the rights of others who hold conflicting views.
In Australia, there are parallel attempts by the state to enforce its secular agenda on people with religious beliefs.
In Victoria, a religious organisation which owned a holiday-camp was found guilty of breaching the law when it declined to make its facilities available to a local government organisation supporting same-sex-attracted youth. There were numerous other holiday camps available at the time.
In Queensland, a motel’s owners were found guilty of breaching the supposed human rights of a prostitute to run her business from its premises. The conviction was overturned on appeal.
Another example is the “Safe Schools” anti-bullying program, which is being promoted in both government and non-government schools. It supports the normalisation of homosexual, lesbian, bisexual and transsexual behaviour among schoolchildren.
Another is found in Section 8 of the Victorian Abortion Law Reform Act 2008, which requires doctors, nurses and pharmacists to participate in abortions, or to refer people to others who will perform the procedure, even if they have a medical or conscientious objection.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.