02.17.2012 10:45 AM

Church-State wall, cracked

This morning’s judgment by the Supreme Court of Canada – which licences mandatory courses to teach religion to student in public schools – is very, very troubling.

Along with suggesting that Conservative attempts to remake the highest court are bearing fruit, I have a few other problems with the decision:

  • It involves governments directly in matters of religion.  Religions should have no influence over governments, and governments should have no influence over religions.  This decision creates a direct and ongoing relationship between the two.
  • How will government bureaucrats decide which religions should be taught, and which should not?  If I was legal counsel to the Scientologists or the Identity Christians, I would immediately commence litigation to demand that my faith now be taught to students.
  • How will the very significant differences of opinion between faiths be depicted?  Jews do not believe Christ was the Messiah.  Some Christians still believe Jews murdered Christ.  Interpretations of the Koran and the Bible – as we all know too well – range from the mundane to the extreme.  Who will determine which interpretation will prevail?  How will they do that?
  • Who will evaluate whether the “teaching” is being conducted in an even-handed manner – and when it devolves into discriminatory proselytizing? Is there going to be a watchdog in place to continually monitor these classes, to ensure what happened in Jim Keegstra’s Eckville High social studies class doesn’t happen in a Quebec classroom?  Why not, if not?
  • I take my children to church; I believe they need to be exposed to the moral teachings which make up most of our major faiths.  When they get older, they can be whatever they want.  Until they then, their mother and me should be the ones guiding them – not some faceless bureaucrats and a teacher whose motives are unknown to me.

And so on  and so on.

I’m usually in a minority on these things, but that’s fine.  But when it comes to my children, I intend to be the one who decides what religions they are exposed to.  When it comes to them, their Mom and I are the majority.

Not some bureaucrat.  And certainly not the unelected conservatives on the Supreme Court of Canada.


  1. Eddie C says:

    Freedom of religion includes the freedom to indoctrinate children as ones wishes without exposure to any other views? Really? Pretty sure that’ll only happen with homeschooling.

    • matt says:

      Freedom of religion should include the right to pull your child from a class that, in the parents’ view, unfairly or inaccurately caricatures the religion the parents are raising the child in. The Supreme Court of Canada now disagrees.

      For example, I went to Catholic school. My view of priests in schools is one of wise and patient men asking gentle questions that took me weeks to answer. Lots of other people – and especially those, including teachers, who are younger than me – will happily, in jest or ignorance, talk about all priests in schools as actual or potential child molesters, or strict tyrants. I’d rather have my children share my view of priests than the current “conventional wisdom.” And so I might want to pull my child from some parts of the class.

      Also, I and many other Catholics have nuanced views about some of the Church’s teachings. Condoms and gays, for example. I would rather be in a position to explain how reconcile being progressive and being Catholic than have a teacher matter of factly state to the class that the Church hates gays and contributes to AIDS.

      (This all assumes that the course is being taught in a public school – if I send my child to a Catholic school I’m going to have to deal with these issues in some way or another. And just imagine the examples from other religions that I can’t bring up because I wasn’t immersed in them growing up.)

      Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that this course shouldn’t be taught. I’m arguing that the province’s explicit direction that no child can ever be pulled from any part is too broad.

  2. smelter rat says:

    From what I’ve read, the decision is no more controversial than mandating the teaching of math or physics, and certainly doesn’t infringe on your right as a parent to teach your kids whatever you’d like about your faith.

  3. Volkov says:

    I don’t disagree with you Warren, but just to point out, there is no separation of Church and State in Canada. That’s evident by our adherence to the Catholic school system here in Ontario, which creates a significant relationship between government and Church already.

    • Ted B says:

      There is separation of church and state in Canada and this has been reinforced by the Supreme Court.

      There is an exception to this fundamental rule in Ontario for Catholic public schools, but that is only the case because of an exception that is expressly set out in the Constitution.

    • KC says:

      Ted is right. There are a handful of exceptions that are explicit in the Charter–Catholic schools and prayer in Alberta and Saskatchewan schools–but in all other respects the free religion and equality provisions of the Charter have been interpreted to imply a separation of church and state.

  4. sassy says:

    From the article you link to “…school program focusing on the historical significance of various religions and creeds“.

    I don’t see the downside of a course like that, religion, whether you believe or not, has played a big role in history, and explains many literary references The Golden Bough.

    It’s a course that I would not mind taking myself just for the education value – and I’m not a believer.

    Am I missing something?

  5. Jim Hanna says:

    As a parent of three children in the Quebec system, I’ve got two takes on this..the first is I think Warren is absolutely right, and this ruling opens the door to a far more doctrinaire set of courses. I was appaled that I was asked, upon registration, what religion my children were (and not just becasue that led to a bit of an argument at home on whether Russian Orthodox and Presbyterian were separate religions…). it was none of my schools business.

    But having had kids take the course…its much more on ethics and highlighting various religions, than pushing one doctrine over the other. Its as bland as you’d expect anything coming out of the MEQ. Now I just think its a bit of a waste of time, which they could use to teach something useful. Like, say, Spanish.

  6. HonestB says:

    I think an education about world religions is pretty worthwhile (and I’m an atheist). I think human rights law has adequate tools to deal with claims from groups that want to be included (they should be accomodated, if it’s “reasonable,” there should be deference to the school board, etc). I don’t think the floodgates argument is particularly compelling, here.

    Kids shouldn’t grow up not understanding anything about faith that motivates other people. Beyond that, I’m just not sure how students can understand world history and current events without some grounding in religion. The thing about some Christians believing jews killed christ was something I learned in school when I was taught about anti-semitism leading up to the holocaust. I don’t think you’re really learning about the holocaust if it’s divorced from any context.

    • matt says:

      All good points, but I would make the floodgates point in reverse. Letting some parents pull their kids from parts of the course doesn’t open the floodgates to negate the benefits the course would provide. The issue isn’t whether the course should be offered, it’s whether parents can pull children from parts of it.

  7. Philippe says:

    I’m not sure what it is that these Cons (that includes judges) hate about society so much that they wish to change. Talk about having a chip on their shoulder. They hate Iran but maybe that’s where they should move if they want to live in their utopian religious state.

  8. Kevin says:

    I’m with sassy on this one, Warren. I don’t have a problem with teaching about the historical significance of various religions and creeds. I would have a problem with teaching a particular religion in a public school. That said, sometimes the teaching of a particular religion in a separate school can be objectionable, even corrosive.

    I grew up in English Catholic Montreal in the 60’s – at the time a particularly racist environment. I was forever being taught things in school that my parents objected to, for example, a moral worth hierarchy of people of various religions and ethnicities. I heard “That’s not what we believe in this house” on a regular basis. I would probably have figured out the lies eventually, but I was lucky that I had parents who had good solid values and who cared enough to address it right away.

  9. Ted H says:

    There is no problem with children learning that religious views different from their family background do indeed exist. Do the Catholic parents want to keep their children isolated from all other beliefs than their own? The result of that is an attitude similar to one of my wife’s close friends who is Catholic and believes her own brother is going to hell because he attends a protestant church. He is a regular and faithful church attender but that means nothing, he is not attending a Catholic church so he is condemned. Anything that breaks up that kind of narrow minded attitude is good. The children may decide after learning something about other faiths that they still prefer their own after all and that will only serve to strengthen that faith.

    • matt says:

      Do you want bureaucrats designing programs to break up what they see as children’s narrow-minded attitudes? That is precisely the risk. I have no issue with a factual and historical overview of world religions, and would love a thoughtful examination of the underpinning ethical traditions. An extraordinarily broad ban on pulling your child from that class makes me think that it is intended to do more than provide history and consider ethics – it is designed to tell children what the “correct” view of various religions is. And in my view doing so amounts to religious indoctrination and infringes a Charter right. I’m surprised by the Court.

  10. Iris Mclean says:

    I have no problem with kids being taught about the different religions in the context of history. As a non-believer, I think the more people know about religion(s), the better prepared they are to protect themselves from getting sucked in to it.

  11. jack says:

    Have to agree that the teaching of religions in a hitrical context is valuable. Parents can and should choose which church and religion their kids follow but an appreciation of the history of other religions is also valuable. I mean, how many journalists reporting on Iran and Iraq understand the history of Shia and Sunni Muslims? What about the history of the Roman Catholic Church, Martin Luther and his rejection of some cathpic policies/doctrines, etc etc. In the right context I think its great but there are risks in that context and the biases that could be introduced. It needs to be monitored. And as interesting as it is to see the differences, its equally interesting to see the common ground between many of these religions. It can’t help but open ones eyes and mind.

    • allegra fortissima says:

      “It needs to be monitored.” What exactly is “it” in this context? Who will be the monitor? What will happen when a bright student writes a critical essay about “The Dogma of Papal Infallibility”, and quotes one of the most courageous and outspoken women in history, Susan B, Anthony: “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”? Trust me, it was fascinating to write this essay and read it in class, and so was the icy silence afterwards. The History of the Roman Catholic Church? Be careful what you wish for…

  12. Dan says:

    No fire here. Not even smoke. This is a policy question, not a constitutional one.

    Freedom religion does NOT mean freedom from historic facts. I’m sure kids might have heard that there’s such a thing as more than one religion in their history classes.

    You might even note McGuinty’s problem with some of the zealots over sex-ed. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean we keep kids ignorant about the science of reproduction.

    And if someone wants to turn a history class about religion into a sermon, I’m sure we’ll handle them the same way we handle any teacher who steps out of line: a parent complains, the teacher gets reprimanded, and ultimately gets fired. And if it becomes big enough to become an issue of policy, I’m sure Conservative, Liberal, and New Democratic governments will differ on what our educational priorities should be.

  13. Skinny Dipper says:

    From my understanding of Quebec governments, they don’t support the English Canadian version of multiculturalism where people come from many different backgrounds and unite under two languages. One reason is that this gives the English language recognition in a province that is supposed to unite under the French language. Moral and religious education is meant to unite Quebec citizens under the Quebec flag.

    I did look at the Quebec curriculum documents. Many of the “expectations” that children must learn seem quite bland such as learning about various holidays and traditions in “Cycle 1.” I guess that’s grade-one and two in Ontario-speak. There is a moral component of making choices, and there is a religious component about understanding the significance of different religions in Quebec. There is a pecking order of which religions should be discussed the most. The first two are Catholism and Protestantism, then native spirituality and Judaism, after that the miscellaneous religions. What Quebec calls “moral education,” we in Ontario would call it “character education.” The big difference is that character education is not listed as a distinct subject. It’s usually integrated in the different subject areas so that students can learn to make decisions about their lives, work with others, and prevent bullying. They are learning and social skills such as honesty and perseverence.

    In Ontario, there is flexibility by the teachers and schools to promote cultural and religious awareness of different groups. Trust me, the promotion of Black History Month activities varies proportionally to the percentage of brown-skin kids in each school. The cultual traditions of Judaism may be heavily discussed in a school that is predominantly Jewish. However, the religious tenents won’t be discussed in detail. The same holds true for other religions. Students won’t learn about the Ten Commandments in Ontario’s public schools. Ontario’s grade-two students will learn about differnent cultures and religions in Social Studies. However, the focus is on traditions and celebrations. There may be a promotion of diversity. Again, that varies proportionally to the percentage of non-white or non-Christian children. Diversity may be an alien concept in many schools in Ontario outside the big cities.

    One thing about teaching is that you learn which subjects are important politically. In Ontario, Language Arts/English and Mathematics are important; Dance and French are not. Even within each subject, some expectations are really important while others are not. I think the same holds true in Quebec. Teachers will tailor the teaching of different subject to their student community. A Catholic school teacher will give prominence to Catholicism within the classroom. On paper, that teacher may list other religions in a unit plan.

  14. Jeff says:

    I was especially surprised to see the SCC described as “unelected conservatives”. Describing the SCC as “unelected conservatives” is not only inaccurate (Justice Abella, for example, would probably be very surprised to be described as a conservative and she was part of the majority) but is also part in parcel of the usually conservative rant against “judicial activism”. The Constitution gives the judges the power and the responsibility to interpret our laws, yet whenever they do so they are criticized (again usually by conservatives) of judicial activism.

  15. Niall says:


    The ruling is incomprehensible.
    Again today you are absolutely correct in your analysis.
    What the ruling means is that the child shall be compelled into state indoctrination (of whatever they decide is Truth), while the parent will be compelled to marginalization.
    This is a morally troubling state of affairs.
    It will mean that, soon, there will be a “Ministry of Religion”: an absurd notion, but certain to come about.
    Those who care about real freedom should be very concerned.

    Niall from Winnipeg

  16. Lawrence Stuart says:

    Sorry, but I’m not seeing the snakes here.

    From the Globe article: “The court said that anyone who challenges a program cannot simply assert that it offends their religious rights without furnishing tangible proof of harm. ”

    Go for it. Good luck.

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