MONTREAL — Loyola High School of Montreal waited for a year for a judgment on its case against the Quebec government, but it was worth the wait.
Judge Gerard Dugre of the Quebec Superior Court ruled on June 18 that the provincial government was violating both procedural justice and Quebec’s Charter of Human Rights and Freedom in insisting the Catholic school teach the government’s new “Ethics and Religious Culture” curriculum, a move the judge labeled “totalitarian.”
That’s not the only good news for religious Canadians. In Ontario, a Catholic- and evangelical-led public uproar forced the provincial government to withdraw a new sex education curriculum on April 22.
And in Western Canada, two university student groups have reversed earlier decisions to muzzle pro-life clubs and in one case even granted $700 in funding that had been withheld.
Said the president of the conservative Canadian Centre for Policy Studies in Ottawa, Joseph Ben Ami, “For the first time in two generations, Canadians are openly talking about their religious values.”
The Loyola decision is only the most recent affirmation of those values. Judge Dugre called the “obligation imposed on Loyola to teach the ethics and religious culture course in a lay fashion assumes a totalitarian character essentially equivalent to Galileo’s being ordered by the Inquisition to deny the Copernican universe.”
Loyola’s president, Jesuit Father Rob Brennan, said he was “pleased” at the judgment but cautioned against “seeing it as a Loyola victory or a government defeat. … Loyola is proud to work alongside the government in promoting excellence for the students of Quebec.”
The “Ethics and Religious Culture” program was designed to fill a presumed void created when the government replaced the province’s Catholic and Protestant schools with a single secular system in 2000. Its goals are to teach respect for others and “promote the common good.”
“But how can you teach respect for others and not allow a Catholic school to be Catholic?” asks Douglas Farrow, a McGill University religious studies professor who testified as an expert witness in the trial a year ago. “The question before the court was, ‘Can the government require Catholics to not be Catholics?’”
Loyola believes in the common good as strongly as the government, insisted Father Brennan.
“But Loyola also holds,” Farrow told the Register, “that the ultimate good is God. Pursuit of the common good requires knowledge of God.”
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The “Ethics and Religious Culture” curriculum, on the other hand, maintains a “relativistic, agnostic and secularist” understanding of both morality and religion, said Farrow. It never treats the actual content of religion as worth considering, but concentrates on religious “culture,” i.e., external practices such as Christmas, rituals and clothing.
All religions are assigned equal value, notes Farrow, and civil-rights leaders such as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. are held up to be as equally admirable as Canada’s pioneer abortionist Henry Morgentaler.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest has promised to appeal the ruling, but Ministry of Education spokesman Cedrick Beauregard told the Register that the question of whether to appeal was still being considered. “Other than that, we cannot comment on the case,” he said.
Next door, in Ontario, the Liberal government, led by Premier Dalton McGuinty, did a complete about-face within the space of four days in March on its new, much-touted sex education curriculum.
The program would have introduced the subject of homosexuality in third grade, masturbation in sixth and oral sex and anal sex in seventh. Jan Bentham, coordinator of religious and family life education in the Ottawa Catholic schools, said the Catholic boards were indeed consulted, but they had made the Ministry of Education “aware there would be some content we would not be delivering in Catholic schools.”
Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast urged parents to contact the government, predicting the government would back down if the new curriculum was met with “a firestorm of protest.”
He said sexuality ought to be taught within the family.
“I believe one of the most important things for children in learning about family life and sexuality issues is to have it in the context of a warm family that explains things to them and helps them to deal with that,” he said, adding that, “I think parents are the first teachers of faith and moral issues to children.”
And evangelical Protestant leader Charles McVety led a parents’ revolt to keep the content from the public school system too. McGuinty quickly withdrew the curriculum for further consultation.
In Alberta, the newly elected board of the University of Calgary student society decided to reverse a 2009 decision of the society to suspend the campus pro-life club. Club president Alanna Campbell commented that the club is “happy that the student society has finally demonstrated a commitment to quality and intellectual freedom.”
The club attracted the parent society’s sanction by annually sponsoring the Genocide Awareness Project, an open-air display of different genocidal or racism-inspired mass murders, including abortion.
She interpreted the change of heart as a response to the attack on the club from another source: the University of Calgary administration. “It seems to me the executive of the student society is willing to fight for the right of students against the university,” she said. The same display had prompted the administration of the university to find Campbell and five other club members guilty of “nonacademic misconduct.” But all are appealing the ruling, she told the Register.
Meanwhile, in British Columbia, the newly elected student council at the University of Victoria has likewise reversed rulings by its predecessors to withhold funding and finally to suspend the pro-life club for a year.
As well as paying $719 in club grants withheld since 2008, the board removed several amendments to the society’s anti-harassment policies made by the outgoing board designed to ban pro-life advocacy from the campus.
This move was prompted by the election of a new slate of student politicians who believe in free speech, but also by a lawsuit launched by the Youth Protecting Youth club with the support of the British Columbia Liberties Association.
“This is a great victory for YPY,” said club president Anastasia Pearse. “We interpret the [University of Victoria Student Society’s] concessions as an admission of wrongdoing, and we’re happy with the new direction it’s taking.”
While the board explained its action in terms of avoiding a costly lawsuit, several returning members and several new ones have expressed strong support for free speech and been critical of the previous sanctions against Youth Protecting Youth. Student Society treasurer Kelsey Hannan told the Register he was “personally pro-choice” but also saw free speech as a fundamental principle that made Canada “the peaceful country that it is.”
The abortion issue, he said, could not be ignored, least of all on a university campus: “My moral philosophy class spent a week on it. There is a deep debate in this country about it.”
The University of Victoria Women’s Centre, a staunch critic of Youth Protecting Youth, has not responded to a request for comment.
The Centre for Policy Studies’ Ben Ami says the common thread linking these events is the resurgence of the belief in individual freedom and responsibility: “These all show a reaction against the interventionist doctrine that governments know best and should intervene in what people are thinking or saying, and that is whether it is provincial government or the government of a university student society. But there is no government in North America more interventionist than Quebec’s.”
Steve Weatherbe writes from Victoria, British Columbia.