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By Patrick B. Craine

DRUMMONDVILLE, Quebec, September 16, 2009 ( – Numerous religious and secular groups have come out strongly against the province of Quebec's persistent refusal to permit exemptions from its mandated course in moral relativism and religious pluralism, 'Ethics and Religious Culture' (ERC).  Much of the recent criticism has resulted from a Quebec Superior Court ruling in Drummondville on August 31st that denied a family's petition to exempt their children from the program.

The ERC program aims to cover the major world religions and advocates moral relativism, presenting, for example, homosexuality as a normal and acceptable life choice.  The Quebec Ministry of Education mandated this curriculum for all children between grades 1 and 11 as of the 2008-2009 school year.

The Drummondville judge, Justice Jean-Guy Dubois, determined that the parents' freedom was not violated because the children are not required to believe what they are taught in the program.  He based his decision on one theologian's interpretation of Catholic teaching, and on the fact that the Quebec Assembly of Bishops had indicated that they did not support exemptions from the program.

Over 1,700 requests for exemptions have been submitted by parents to the Ministry, but all have been refused.

Members of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, a non-partisan law group dedicated to defending constitutional freedoms, decried the court ruling in a Monday article for the National Post, entitled 'God and Government.'  The organization will be helping the parents with their constitutional challenge.

According to the authors, the Drummondville judge ruled that “parents do not have ultimate authority over the moral or religious education of their children, and that the state can impose a curriculum that conflicts with the moral codes parents strive to instill.”

“Parents do not wish to have to instruct their children—stealthily, at home—that the moral relativism they are being taught at school is wrong,” they continue. “They do not wish to have to undermine their children's confidence in their schoolteachers.”

The concern over parents' rights in educating their children spans “all religions and moral codes,” they note.  “While the parents who brought the court action happen to be Catholic, the secular and humanist Mouvement laique quebecois also opposes the ERC course being mandatory for all children. Agnostic and atheist parents don't want their children forcibly exposed to religion at a young age.”

While the province and the court have insisted that the course does not impugn parents' freedom because they are still free to instruct their children in their own faith at home, the authors point out that the course is even being mandated for homeschooling families.  “Imagine parents instructing their children about the importance of adhering to their own religious beliefs in the morning, then telling them that there are a dozen other religions to choose from, all equally valid, in the afternoon,” they write.  “It's ludicrous for the province to argue that such a process respects freedom of belief.”

“Freedom of religion and conscience, parental authority, and family autonomy are bulwarks which protect all citizens from government coercion and intrusion,” they conclude.  “We dismantle these bulwarks at our peril.”

The Association of Catholic Parents in Quebec, further, rejected Judge Dubois' ruling as “unacceptable,” calling for an appeal in a press release issued the day after the ruling.  The ruling, they said, “deprives citizens of all faiths the fundamental right of parents to guide their children in religious and moral development according to their own convictions, and it interferes with the freedom of religion and conscience of our youth.”

The Association points out that the judge rejected a Vatican statement that supported the parents' position.  As previously noted, he favored one particular theologian's opinion instead.  The document, published by the Congregation for Catholic Education on May 5, 2009, stated: “If religious education is limited to an exposition of comparative religion, supposedly neutral, it will be the source of confusion, or induce belief in relativism or indifferentism.” According to the document, such instruction “violates the rights of parents when children are required to take a course of instruction which is contrary to the religious conviction of parents or imposes a form of education in which all religious instruction is excluded.”

“There is no possible basis in the documents cited by the judge for him to claim that the compulsory study of other religions at a very young age is acceptable to the Vatican,” said Marie Bourque, spokeswoman for the Association.  “Traditionally, such instruction was given toward the end of secondary school when children already understand their own religion and have attained sufficient maturity to study world religions.”

Mme Bourque concluded by highlighting the danger inherent in the fact that the judge set himself up as arbiter of Church teaching. This judgment “creates a dangerous precedent in that a civil court has imposed its own interpretation of the teaching of a church based upon a biased viewpoint in order to deny fundamental rights of parents and their children,” she said.  “It is not for the government or the courts, or even churches, to replace parents in the choice of religious and moral education of their children.”

While the Quebec Assembly of Bishops has not supported parents in seeking exemptions, Quebec City's Marc Cardinal Ouellet has been a strong leader in opposing the curriculum, through articles, news interviews, and in an appearance before the Bouchard-Taylor Commission.  He has called the ERC program “the dictatorship of relativism applied beginning in elementary school.”  According to the Cardinal, it “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.”

Strong criticism has also come from a Jewish group that contends the course is incompatible with the Torah, as the Canadian Jewish News (CJN) reported earlier this month.  The new Council on Jewish Education in Quebec, who have developed their position on the course in consultation with 200 Quebec rabbis, has gone so far as to insist that Jewish day schools give up their government funding if the curriculum is not changed.

The Council took out an ad in the Montreal Gazette on August 21st asserting that Jewish teachers should be permitted to “pass a value judgment on the beliefs being studied.”

“Torah law requires Jews to epistemologically recognize the prophecy of Moses as absolute eternal truth, which cannot be contradicted by any other prophet,” the ad states.  “Therefore, when a Jewish school class studies a belief that is incompatible with the prophecy of Moses (e.g. atheism), the Jewish teacher is obligated to identify the incompatible belief as false.”

“Jews are permitted by Torah law to earn their own livelihoods and thereby support their own schools [Talmud, Berakhot 35b],” the ad continues. “Thus, Jewish schools are expected to follow [Torah law] irrespective of financial considerations.”

Rabbi Shalom Spira, the Council's volunteer executive director, explained to the CJN that “we cannot forfeit our loyalty to Torah for financial reasons.”  While Jews must obey civil law, he said, there is a line.  “If a government asked us to start a fire on Shabbat, we couldn't do it,” he said, referring to the weekly day of rest.

As Rabbi Spira himself admitted, however, under the current law it would not matter if schools gave up their funding.  The course is mandated whether or not a school receives public funds.

In addition to these various groups, the secular Coalition pour la LibertÚ en Education also opposed the ruling, as LSN reported previously.  The group objected to the judge's reliance on Catholic teaching instead of the right to freedom of religion and conscience, and also to the fact that he purported to act as “an arbiter of religions.”

Loyola High School, a private Catholic boys' school in the Jesuit tradition, presented its case for exemption in June, and still awaits judgment.

The Drummondville parents have until the end of September to take their case to the Quebec Court of Appeal.

See related coverage:

Quebec Coalition Demands Respect for Rights of Parents to Decide Education of Their Children 

Quebec Judge Denies Families Religious Exemption From Mandatory School Course in Relativism