A victory for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience

 

The National Catholic Register today reports on an important victory for all those swimming against the current in the fight for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. The victory came with Canada’s Supreme Court finding in favour of a Jesuit school which challenged a law which would require Catholics to ignore the principles of their faith in what they teach in schools.

 

OTTAWA, Canada — Canada’s Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that Catholic schools in Quebec must be allowed to teach from a Catholic viewpoint during a state-mandated religion and ethics class.

“To tell a Catholic school how to explain its faith 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,” the Canadian Supreme Court wrote in its 7-0 March 19 decision.

The province of Quebec, in July 2008, introduced a mandatory religion and ethics class and required it to be taught without regard to any religion. Even in Catholic schools, teachers were barred from voicing a preference for any faith.

The rules would mean that if a student in the class asked about a Catholic perspective on a religion, a teacher would not be allowed to answer.

Additionally, the course must be taught regardless of whether a school receives state funds.

Jesuit-run Loyola High School in Montreal challenged the law.

“This ruling makes clear that the government is on dangerous ground if it seeks to force a private organization to act in a manner completely contrary to its deepest faith convictions,” Canadian attorney Gerald Chipeur, who represented the school, said March 19.

The court’s decision means that “faith-based schools are free to operate according to the faith they teach and espouse.”

Chipeur’s law firm, Miller Thompson LLP, is allied with Alliance Defending Freedom International, the global organization of the U.S.-based religious-freedom-defense legal group.

ADF International’s executive director, Benjamin Bull, said the government “cannot require a private religious school to tell its students that their faith is no more valid than a myriad of other, conflicting faith traditions. All faith-based organizations must be free to speak and act consistently with their faith or religious freedom is not at all free.”

The court ruling noted that the requirement interferes with parents’ right to transmit their 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.” Transmission of religious faith is “an essential ingredient of the vitality of a religious community.”

Undermining lawful religious institutions’ character and disrupting religious communities’ vitality represents “a profound interference with religious freedom,” the court said.

While the court’s ruling against the province requirement was unanimous, the justices were split 4-3 on how to resolve the situation. The majority ruled that the matter should be sent back to Quebec’s minister of education, meaning that Loyola High School may now reapply to the Education Ministry for an exemption to teach the program. The ministry’s decision must be guided by the court ruling, CBC News reported.

Benoît Boucher, who represented Quebec’s attorney general, said the ruling shows that it is should be mandatory for all students in the province to have a thorough understanding of diversity.

Read more: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/canada-supreme-court-catholic-schools-have-a-right-to-teach-church-views/#ixzz3VDwKpCfJ

Another,  less optimistic, view on this decision from a writer with Canada’s National Post.

Loyola, a private Catholic secondary school, seems to be well pleased with the decision, which recognizes the unreasonableness, if not outright absurdity, of requiring the religious school to teach Catholicism and Catholic ethics “from a neutral perspective,” as the ERC would have done. One of the school’s lawyers, Mark Phillips, said enthusiastically of the ruling, “Every single judge is entirely behind the idea that Loyola as a Catholic school should be allowed to teach its religion and its ethical system without ceasing to be who they are….”

And he is almost correct about that. While the majority decision does not actually recognize or delineate what religious freedom Loyola might enjoy in its own right as an institution, it does make it clear that Loyola’s teachers and students are entitled to religious freedom — freedom that it deems to have been unnecessarily limited by the ERC.

What’s the problem then? Why should proponents of religious liberty, who have had much to worry about in Canada lately, not be breaking out the confetti at this bit of good news?

The reason, I’d suggest, for holding off on the party is that what the court has delivered is really a very limited bit of happy tidings. It’s nice that all the justices have allowed that forcing a Catholic school to teach Catholicism from a secular perspective is not on. But it would have been far nicer if the majority had recognized that legally imposing on a Catholic school in this way is not merely an unnecessary limit given the particular statutory goals at issue in this case, but before that a full-on defeat of the very purpose of a religious institution and thereby an explicit and eternal violation of constitutionally protected religious freedom.

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