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There should be no exceptions for Quebec ethics and religion course

Quietly, a major societal debate is underway about whether exceptions should be allowed for parochial schools to teach in their own way, or not teach at all, Quebec’s new ethics and religious culture course.

The latest round was sparked by the extraordinary ruling by a Superior Court judge in favour of Loyola High School, a private Roman Catholic institution that insists that it be exempted and allowed to teach the course as it sees fit, from a God-centred, Catholic perspective. Quebec has promised to appeal that ruling.

Some ultra-orthodox Jewish schools are extremely reluctant to teach the course, or refusing to teach it and other secular courses. The Quebec government has another date in court, this time seeking to close Toras Moshe Academy boys school, run by and for the Satmar Hasidic community. Its reasons include not being able to devote sufficient time to, or the limited scope of, core education. When it comes to the ethics and religious culture course, community spokesperson Alex Werzberger made it clear June 10 in the Canadian Jewish News that “they are absolutely not going to learn it.” It can be assumed that other ultra-Hasidic, Orthodox Jewish and some Muslim schools are similarly reluctant.

The question for society is this: Does the government have the right to decide the content of core education for students age six to 16 as the Education Act decrees? And when it comes to the ethics and religious culture course, does it conflict with Freedom of Religion guarantees in federal and Quebec charters of rights?

On this point we strongly support the Quebec government, and the official opposition. Given the growing multiethnic composition of Quebec society, and the fact that it can only become more so, our students need to develop an understanding of the ethical and religious backgrounds of our neighbours in a non-judgmental context.

To some this is tantamount to moral relativism. To us, it is a necessary part of everyone’s basic education, as necessary as learning French and English. Knowing the essence of your neighbour’s ethical and religious background means understanding why he or she has certain beliefs as that family begins to assimilate Canadian values.

When the province leaped out of the darkness that were the Duplessis years and created a Department of Education, there was a historic compromise with the Catholic Church. As the state rushed to catch up by building high schools for all to attend without charge, the Church was allowed to continue running its classical colleges, with government financial support. The condition was that the Education Department would take over responsibility for deciding what must be included in core education. Jewish and later Muslim schools were given the same deal. Even schools that accept no government grants, such as the Toras Moshe Academy, are obliged to conform to basic education standards in terms of core course content and qualifications of teachers.

We believe Justice Gérard Dugré in his Loyola High School ruling missed the point, and went overboard when he stated that “Canadian democratic society is based on principles recognizing the supremacy of God.”

One person’s god can be another person’s devil. Yes, our humanistic values evolve from a Judeo-Christian perspective, but certainly are not based in any legal sense on a belief in some anthropomorphic presence. Catholic, Jewish and Muslim schools are free, in their catechism or religion classes, to promote exclusivity when it comes to belief in the one true god, and are free to propagate the idea that non-believers are condemned to eternal damnation.

But let them learn to recognize the various animist beliefs and values associated with the original inhabitants of this country, followed by the invading Christian then Jewish beliefs and values. We believe all children should learn the core religious and ethical values Aïsha and Wëi and Ying and Lakshmi and Rahul carry with them from their diverse backgrounds.

We understand that it cannot be easy for parochial schools to segregate teaching in this field from commitments to exclusivity when it comes to belief systems, but ultimately we support what we feel is a necessary role for our schools to help students understand the rapidly evolving ethno-cultural composition of this city and province.



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