QUEBEC CITY, February 20, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) – Can a course in religion ever be neutral? In other words, can a secular school teach children about varying religions and moral choices on an equal footing without promoting relativism and instilling in a child indifference to his own faith?

On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected a Quebec family’s request to exempt their child from the province’s controversial program in ethics and religious culture by arguing that the program remains “neutral” with respect to the various religions it teaches about, and so it would not appear to impede the parent’s effort to form their children in their Catholic faith.

But the highest-ranking leaders of the family’s own faith have strongly disagreed.

In the Friday decision, Justice Marie Deschamps wrote that “exposing children to a comprehensive presentation of various religions without forcing the children to join them does not constitute an indoctrination of students that would infringe the freedom of religion of [the parents].”

“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,” she wrote.

However, in a May 2009 letter, entered into evidence at the family’s trial in the same year, the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education wrote that this type of “neutral” presentation of differing religions is relativistic in and of itself and so undermines a parent’s effort to pass along the faith.

“If religious education is limited to a presentation of the different religions, in a comparative and ‘neutral’ way, it creates confusion or generates religious relativism or indifferentism,” wrote the Congregation in the letter, which focused specifically on government efforts to implement courses in “religious ethics and culture.”

“The right of parents are violated, if their children are forced to attend lessons or instructions which are not in agreement with their religious beliefs,” they wrote.

Cardinal Marc Ouellet, then-Archbishop of Quebec and current prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, applied this assessment specifically to the Quebec program, describing it as “the dictatorship of relativism applied beginning in elementary school.”

One poem that was read during an elementary ERC class refers to the children having a “choice of religion.” “There’s God who is Hashem who to some is Allah, / Kamisama who’s the Great Spirit and who is Jahova,” it reads. “We pray or we bow or we meditate / In a mosque, church or synagogue / Then we go to heaven or we reincarnate / Any place we can commune with God.”

Denis Watters, the man who oversaw the ERC program for the Ministry of Education, has himself stated, “This is not a neutral program, and I will say it loud and clear: this is not a neutral program.”

Despite the views of the Vatican and Cardinal Ouellet, the trial judge, Quebec Superior Court Justice Jean-Guy Dubois, based his original ruling largely on the testimony of a priest-theologian from Laval University, Fr. Gilles Routhier, who emphasized the Catholic Church’s respect for people of other faiths.

The judge also gave significant weight to a statement from the Quebec Bishops’ Assembly that exemptions for the course would not be warranted “a priori,” that is without actual evidence of harm.

“The court does not see how a Catholic child who attends the ERC course could be violated in his conscience and his religion. Even the leaders of the Catholic Church admit the validity of an objective presentation of other religions,” Justice Dubois wrote.

But according to Cardinal Ouellet, the program “subjects religions to the control and the interests of the State and puts an end to religious freedoms in school which were acquired many generations ago.”

The Congregation for Catholic Education asserts that respect for religious freedom in a “pluralistic society” demands that education in religion “be in accordance with parents’ convictions.”

Loyola High School, a Montreal-area private school for boys in the Jesuit tradition, met with fierce opposition from the government when it tried to teach the ERC course within the context of the Catholic faith, which they hoped would allow them to teach about other faiths while affirming their belief in the truth of their own faith.

In June 2010, the Quebec Superior Court sided with Loyola, describing the government’s actions as “totalitarian.” The government has appealed that decision to the Quebec Court of Appeal, which will hear arguments on May 7th.

The ERC program was mandated at the beginning of the 2008-2009 school year for all students including homeschoolers, and spans from grade one to the end of high school.  Claiming to take a “neutral” stance, the curriculum covers a spectrum of world religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and aboriginal spirituality, as well as pseudo-religions such as atheism.