Eight years after the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously rejected Quebec’s ban on Sikh kirpan daggers in the classroom, another major test of academic religious freedom comes to Canada’s top court Monday, as a private Catholic boys high school in Montreal fights for the right to teach ethics and religious culture in its own Jesuit style.
This time, though, legal arguments from the school, the province, and several religious intervenors from across the country, will be made in the strained climate of an election campaign dominated by Quebec’s cultural insecurity and vulnerability, epitomized in the governing Parti Québécois’ proposed Charter of Values.
“In a certain sense, the situation has become more tense,” said John Zucchi, a McGill University history professor who was a plaintiff in the original case, on behalf of his son, Thomas, then a student at Loyola High School.
The course was created by the Liberal government of former premier Jean Charest, but the PQ has magnified this tension, Mr. Zucchi said, by “pandering” to narrow interests and confusing the fundamental issues of accommodation.
The basic question, as trial judge Gérard Dugré put it, is “whether the state can secularize the teaching of religion and morality within the very walls of a private Catholic denominational school.”
The answer cuts to the heart Quebec’s post-Catholic secular identity within a multicultural Canada.
First taught in 2008, Quebec’s mandatory high school course in ethics and religious culture is, as Judge Dugré wrote, “the culmination of the process of secularization of public schools undertaken by the Quebec government… in that it secularizes the teaching of ethics and religious culture.”
The course embodies a “relativistic philosophy, commonly known as ‘normative pluralism,’” the judge wrote. “The basic principles of that philosophy trivialize and, for all practical purposes, negate religious experience and belief.”