The Supreme Court challenge of a Quebec government ruling by Montreal's Loyola High School may have implications for the rest of Canada, says school principal Paul Donovan.
In an interview, Donovan said the case focuses on the government's refusal to allow Loyola to teach a program from a Catholic perspective. In March next year, the Supreme Court will hear Loyola's appeal seeking to be exempted from teaching Quebec's mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program.
Donovan said Loyola has no issue with the goals of the provincial program but wants to be allowed to use its own course and teach it from a Catholic point of view. The law allows for such an exemption as long as the education minister deems the alternative course to be equivalent to the provincial program.
The minister turned down Loyola's request, but in 2010 Quebec's Superior Court sided with the school saying Loyola should be granted permission to adapt the program. However, last December the Quebec Court of Appeal reversed that ruling. The Supreme Court agreed to hear Loyola's appeal. Arguments will be heard in March 2014.
Donovan was in Edmonton Oct. 30-31 as part of an eight-day cross-Canada tour to explain what is at stake in the school's court challenge. Accompanying Donovan was Peter Stockland, director of Cardus, a Hamilton-based think tank that supports Loyola's appeal.
"If you weaken institutions, particularly religious institutions, within a society, you are weakening that entire society and its ability to function effectively," Stockland said.
Loyola is a Jesuit boys school founded in 1896. Its mission is "to form young men who are intellectually competent, open to growth, religious, loving and committed to doing justice."
In 2008, the Quebec government mandated the teaching of the ERC curriculum in all schools. Two stated goals of the curriculum were "recognition of others" and "pursuit of the common good."
The curriculum was part of Quebec's move away from confessional school boards to linguistic school boards.
"When they went to linguistic school boards, they felt it was still important that students in Quebec had some sense of the religious traditions and learn about the religions that make up the culture of Quebec," Donovan explained. "In order to do that, they came up with this (ERC) course."
Donovan said Loyola has never disputed the constitutionality of the curriculum. His school's fight is against "the arbitrary administrative denial of permission" to teach the program from a Catholic perspective.
The problem came when the government started to put limitations as to how to teach the course, Donovan said.
"Those limitations include things like 'You cannot bring a religious perspective into discussions on it.' I think the teacher in fact is not supposed to bring any perspective. He's just supposed to let the kids figure it out, acting like a facilitator, not as a teacher."
In discussing world religions, a teacher may talk only about cultural practices such as the fact Sikhs wear turbans and Muslims wear the hijab, the Loyola principal said.
"You don't do a kind of a systematic look at any one religion. What this does is it essentially diminishes the understanding of what a religion is. You are looking at little pieces of it in isolation and not understanding how it fits together."
Loyola has taught world religions for 30 years "but we take a systematic approach to religion," noted Donovan. "We even have rabbis come to speak. That's prohibited in the (ERC) course.
"It's prohibited for you to bring a faith dimension into the (ERC) program. And as far as ethics go, when we are talking about ethical issues we want our kids to see all the different ways of approaching an ethical issue. At the same time for us it is really important that they do understand what the Church teaching is on it."
Another issue Donovan is fighting is the Quebec attorney general's contention that institutions don't have religious freedom. That means "Loyola couldn't apply for protection under religious freedom because we are a corporate reality, and they argue that religious freedom only applies to individuals."
The Superior Court judge maintained institutions do have religious freedom.
"The appeals court didn't answer the question so that's one of the questions we are asking the Supreme Court to deal with because if institutions don't have religious freedom, then neither does the diocese, neither does the synagogue and that can have significant ramifications throughout the country."