Who gets to decide what kind of religious and moral instruction children receive in school? Parents or the state? Quebec says it’s the state. But late last week, a Quebec Superior Court judge delivered a powerful blow for the opposite side of the argument.
The case was initiated by Loyola, a private, anglo, Catholic high school located in Montreal. Loyola had requested an exemption from a provincially mandated ethics and morality course — Éthique et Culture Religieuse (ECR) — on the grounds that it provides its students with an equivalent program, albeit one imbued with the school’s Jesuit pedagogical principles. On June 18, Justice Gérard Dugré found that the government’s decision to refuse Loyola’s request was invalid because the refusal was based on the assumption that a confessional program could not accomplish the goals of ECR.
The decision will be greeted with jubilation by a number of grass-roots groups, ranging in motivation from religious conservatism to home-schooling libertarianism to atheistic nationalism. And rightly so.
ECR begins in kindergarten and continues through to high school graduation (with one year off). The course is supposedly benign, a means of exposing children to a panoply of belief systems by inculcating in them “absolute respect for every religious position.” But according to ECR materials, “every religious position” includes pagan animism, witchcraft (“Wiccans are women like any other in daily life”) and even the nutbar Raelian movement. In one of the high school workbooks, Catholicism is allotted 12 pages, feminism 27 pages.
Religious activists opposed to the program see it as a blatant case of social engineering, a statist indoctrination of children into the ideology of moral relativism. Their quite reasonable fear is that the course will convince impressionable children that no religion is unique or has any superior moral insight to offer or is worthy of special reverence.
As I wrote in a column at the time of its implementation, “The program is predicated on the worst possible educational model for young children: the philosopher Hegel’s ‘pedagogy of conflict.’ As one of the founders of the ECR course put it, students “must learn to shake up a too-solid identity” and experience ‘divergence and dissonance’ through ‘le questionnement.’ ”
Religiously committed parents and institutions such as Loyola High School, founded in 1848, believe “divergence and dissonance” and le questionnement — that is to say, creating doubt about one’s own religious and cultural identity — is the last thing a very young child needs to experience, since such a pedagogical strategy obviously undermines the serene internalization of the particular religious identity he is receiving at home.
Absorption of a particular identity does not preclude learning about other religions and cultures, and students at religious institutions such as Loyola do that already. But ERC goes further, obliging religious institutions to treat many ethical approaches as morally equivalent. Loyola High School would be refused the right to teach that, say, deferred sexual gratification and fidelity to one’s mate is a preferable ethical choice to hedonism and early sexual gratification.
In his 63-page decision, Judge Dugré issued a surprisingly aggressive and even humiliating rebuke to the Ministry of Education: “The obligation imposed on Loyola to teach the ethics and religious culture course in a lay fashion assumes a totalitarian character essentially equivalent to Galileo’s being ordered by the Inquisition to deny the Copernican universe.” By insisting on rigidly secular guidelines for the teaching of religion, Judge Dugré said, the Quebec Charter of Rights had been violated.
This is an excellent decision and sends a clear, strong message that secular institutions should stay out of the business of instructing children in how to think about religion. That’s not to say schools shouldn’t teach the objective evolution of various religions or religious wars and so forth in their history courses. But scientifically acquired knowledge is one thing, the inculcation of belief another. In a secular state’s education system, evidence-based facts are welcome; in-your-faith brainwashing isn’t.
Kay is a columnist for Canada’s National Post. She writes and lives