Mandatory religion course doesn’t infringe on freedoms, top court rules

Toronto, Canada - A mandatory Quebec school program focusing on the historical significance of various religions and creeds does not harm the religious freedoms of parents and their children, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on Friday.

Resolving an important test of Charter of Rights values, the Court firmly sided with the province and a school board whose right to administer the plan had been challenged by angry parents.

Far from shoving religious views down the throats of children, the program opens them to a wide variety of viewpoints and beliefs, Madam Justice Marie Deschamps wrote for the majority.

“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,” Judge Deschamps said, referring to the children of the litigants.

“Furthermore, the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society,” she said. “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.”

The contentious program, known as the Ethics and Religious Culture program, was made mandatory in Quebec schools in May, 2008.

Its stated purpose was to expose children to a range of cultures, creeds and religious traditions such as Judaism, aboriginal spirituality and other religious traditions. The goals of the program specified that an emphasis would be placed on the historical significance of French culture and the role Catholic and Protestant Christian traditions.

The parents behind the constitutional challenge, a Catholic couple who reside in Drummondville, Que., argued that the program was at odds with guarantees in the provincial Education Act.

They alleged that the program could expose their two children to harm and disruption, “caused by forced, premature contact” with beliefs that are incompatible with those held by the parents. They said that the program could also have an adverse effect on the religious beliefs the children were being taught in their home.

Judge Deschamps asserted that an individual cannot simply claim that their religious rights were infringed without showing some objective proof of actual interference.

"It is not enough for a person to say that his or her rights have been infringed," she said. "The person must prove the infringement on a balance of probabilities."

Judge Deschamps also said that the litigants did not go beyond claiming that the program damaged their ability to pass on their Catholic precepts to their children - there was no evidence to prove the allegation.

Two judges - Mr. Justice Louis LeBel and Mr. Justice Morris Fish - agreed with their seven colleagues on the crux of the decision but said that documentary evidence furnished to the court of the program's aims and specific teaching was sketchy.

"The state of the record does not permit to conclude that the (program) and its implementation could not, in the future, infringe the rights granted to L and J and persons in the same situation," they said.

The parents cannot be identified because of a publication ban on the names of their children. One of the children was in Grade one and had not yet had the course. The other was part way through secondary school and had completed the program.

The local school board – the Commission scolaire des Chênes – refused to grant the children an exemption from the program based on a directive from the province that stated there would be no exemptions.

Both the school board and the Quebec government were respondents in the challenge.

At trial, a Quebec Superior Court judge refused to grant the children an exemption, ruling that the mandatory program did not violate their Charter right to religious freedom. Their appeal was rejected in 2010 by the Quebec Court of Appeal.

The case necessitated the Supreme Court delving into a key portion of the Charter guarantee of religious freedom – the intersection of provincial education priorities and the independence of school boards.

The case had echoes of a previous case heard by the Ontario Court of Appeal, in which it held that an Ontario regulation imposing mandatory prayer sessions violated the Charter because it forced students to adopt a religious practice.

The Ontario Court of Appeal warned against the imposition of educational material that amounts to indoctrination of students.

In legal arguments in the case before the Supreme Court, lawyers for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association asked the judges to strike a balance between freedom of conscience and religion of parents while, at the same time, protecting the “ultimate interests of the child.”

The CCLA said that courts need a flexible legal test they can apply to future cases in order to gauge whether an attempt by government to intervene in education violates the freedom of conscience or religion of either the parents or their children.

It suggested that in many cases, the needs of both sides can be accommodated. For example, exempting students from part or all of an educational program might be reasonable, provided the educational objectives of the program are achieved by other means in the home or at school.

The CCLA argued that any legal test should involve consideration of the moral and intellectual needs of children – even if they conflict with their parents’ perspective.

Legal intervenors in the case included the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and an umbrella group representing the Association of Catholic Parents of Quebec, Faith and Freedom Alliance, the Catholic Civil Rights League and the Coptic Christian Association of Greater Montreal.