MONTREAL, December 7, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Quebec’s Court of Appeal has ruled that a private Catholic high school in Montreal must cease teaching a Catholic course on religion and morality and switch to the “secular” and “neutral” Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) course provided by the province’s government.

The judges ruled on Tuesday that “exposing students to the global study of religions in a neutral perspective without requiring them to adhere to it, is not an infringement of freedom of religion”.

Patrick Andries, secretary of the Coalition for Freedom in Education, told LifeSiteNews.com that he was “surprised” that three Quebec judges found it to be “perfectly reasonable” to “secularize the education provided in a Catholic private school.” He pointed out that the move is an “oxymoron at the very least.”

The Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) called the ruling “a grand social experiment” that raised the “legitimate objections of religious parents”.

“With this decision, the Court of Appeal has seriously infringed upon the right of parents to direct the religious education of their children,” said League President Philip Horgan.

The CCRL pointed out that the decision “creates a dilemma” for Catholic parents in Quebec who send their children to private Catholic schools “to avail their children of an authentic moral and religious upbringing in accordance with their faith”.

The case arose in 2008 when the Education Minister at that time forbade the Jesuit run Loyola High School from covering the mandatory curriculum by means of an already developed equivalent course but from a Catholic perspective. The Minister argued that Loyola’s course would not meet the requirements because it was faith-based rather than secular, and thus manifested a religious bias.

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The ERC program was mandated at the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year for all students, and spans from grade one to the end of high school. The course purports to take a “neutral” stance on world religions, giving equal merit to Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and aboriginal spirituality, as well as pseudo-religions such as atheism.

The highly-controversial course has been criticized for its “relativistic” approach to moral issues, teaching even at the earliest grades, for instance, that homosexuality is a normal/healthy expression of sexuality.

Loyola argued that the ERC program was “incompatible with Catholic beliefs of the school and it is not really neutral because it promotes an ideology of relativism”.

Loyola responded by taking the Education Ministry to court and won a resounding victory.

In the 2010 strongly-worded ruling, the Quebec Superior Court ruled that the Ministry’s attempt to force Loyola to teach the strictly secular course violated their freedom of religion under the Quebec Charter of Rights. The Superior Court reversed the Ministry’s decision and allowed the school to teach its substitute and equivalent program.

The judge at that time found it “surprising” that Quebec’s Ministry of Education had assumed what he called “a totalitarian character essentially equivalent to Galileo’s being ordered by the Inquisition to deny the Copernican universe”.

The Ministry appealed that decision and this week the Court of Appeal overturned the lower court.

“The program offered by Loyola seems to target the teaching content similar to that of the Ministry, but the perspective adopted is unquestionably religious,” wrote judge Jacques Fournier, whose decision was supported by judges Allan Hilton and Richard Wagner.

The judges ruled that “in light of the political will to secularize education” Loyola’s Catholic-perspective course cannot be considered “equivalent” to the ERC program, because the ERC course was specifically designed to be religiously “neutral”.

Judge Fournier pointed out that if the ECR course were to harm the faith of students, the “damage” would be “negligible because this is only one course among many.”

The judges noted in their ruling that teachers are not being asked to “refute the teachings of the Catholic religion, but to refrain from expressing their opinion or belief.”

Andries noted that the judges do not explain in their ruling why the “new ‘secular’ ERC program is a more effective way to learn for students than the old proven Catholic approach of Loyola”.

“Ultimately, this judgement strongly reinforces the discretion of the Ministry of Education to decide what is an equivalent program. This raises the bar for private schools who oppose the ideology or the pedagogy set out in the curriculum by the Ministry.”

Andries scored it, “State: 1—Parents and private schools: 0.”

Douglas Farrow, a McGill University professor, who testified at Loyola’s original case, told LifeSiteNews that “there is currently in Canada no more important case respecting religious liberty than this one.” Farrow noted that Loyola is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.