OTTAWA, Ontario, February 17, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) - After Friday morning’s unanimous Supreme Court ruling denying a Quebec family’s request to exempt their child from the province’s controversial ethics and religious culture program, the mother says she feels that her parental rights have been thwarted.
“As a parent, I feel like I have a right to a say in the education of my children,” said the mother, who can only be identified as S.L. “I feel it was very serious and it has serious outcomes.”
Lawyers and commentators involved in the case are calling the ruling a devastating blow for parental rights and an unprecedented victory for the state’s authority over the education of children; however, they also emphasize that the court has not declared the ethics and religious culture program to be constitutional, and has left the door open to another court challenge.
Jean-Yves Côté, the family’s lawyer at the trial, said that with today’s ruling “the state is now in a position to impose in the public schools an ideology that doesn’t correspond to the parent’s faith.”
“According to the civil code, the parent delegates his authority to the teacher,” he explained. “Now there is a shift. The authority of the teacher comes not from the parents but from the state.”
The ERC course, which has been mandated for all students from grades 1 to 11 including homeschoolers, was introduced in 2008 with the aim of presenting the spectrum of world religions and lifestyle choices from a “neutral” stance.
The parents, along with moral conservatives and people of faith across the country, charged that it promotes relativism and its mandatory nature violated the parental right to direct the education of their children.
But the Supreme Court’s majority decision, written by Justice Deschamps on behalf of herself and six other justices, argued that the course does not infringe on a particular set of religious beliefs because it remains neutral to religion.
“State neutrality is assured when the state neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief, that is, when it shows respect for all postures towards religion, including that of having no religious beliefs whatsoever,” wrote Deschamps.
But Patrick Andries of the Coalition pour la Liberté en Éducation, which supported the family throughout the case, says the course is not as neutral as the court supposes. “It has inherently in it a relativist approach,” he said, adding that the presentation of the different faiths “tends to confuse the children.”
The crux of the court’s argument was that the parents failed to meet the burden of proof necessary to show that their child’s participation in the course would impede their ability to raise him in their Catholic faith.
Côté explained that the court has thus raised the bar for parents who object to school curriculum: while previously it was sufficient to show that a program went against the parents’ sincerely-held faith, now they must provide evidence that it has “interfered with their ability to pass their faith on to their children,” in the court’s words.
With this ruling, he said, “we need an objective criteria, or proof, or evidence that the freedom of religion of the plaintiff is infringed. That is totally new.”
The mother says the heightened criterion is too high a burden. “Who can weigh prejudice toward a child when it comes to faith? How can we provide objective proof and who can dismiss a parent’s voice as an expert?” she asked.
Justice LeBel, in his minority decision, said the court was not able to judge the program itself and how it would be implemented in the classroom because there was insufficient evidence of its content presented at the trial.
Côté noted that the case was difficult because they brought it forward before the course had even been implemented, and the trial judge, Judge Dubois, had only allowed them to present the one book used by the family’s six-year-old, prohibiting them from presenting the rest of the curriculum.
Don Hutchinson, vice president and general legal counsel for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, which intervened in the case, emphasized that the court based its decision on a lack of evidence that the child had actually suffered harm from the course – a requirement for the exemption – owing to the fact that they went to court before the child entered the course.
As a result, he called it a “non-decision on parental rights and religious freedom” in which the court “hung their legal hat on a technicality.”
At the same time, he criticized the ruling, saying that parents have always had the right to make decisions about their child’s religious and moral instruction “without government interference.”
Faye Sonier, legal counsel for the EFC, said, “the Court has left the door open to a similar case returning to the court if an objective infringement of rights can be demonstrated, rather than a parental concern about infringement.”
But Andries pointed out that the Quebec law allowing exemptions says they can be used to “prevent” harm, meaning, he says, that one should not “have to go through the problem before asking for exemptions.”
Jean-Morse Chevrier, president of the Catholic Parents Association of Quebec and a director with the Catholic Civil Rights League, said the need to prove harm means that “parents would have to document the situation,” so it would be “extremely difficult.”
“It’s as though you really have to prove it, and it’s not easy to do on the psychological level and the spiritual level, the damage that’s being done,” she said. “And once the damage is done it’s not that easy to undo.”
She said the court has left parents who object to the course with no options because it is being imposed on the private schools and even officially on homeschoolers. “It’s a blow. It becomes a civil rights issue,” she said.