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Religion and secularism: living in harmony

by Matthew Shanahan March 31, 2015
Religion and secularism: living in harmony

Loyola’s case highlights the need for exemptions

On March 19, Loyola High School ended its six-year battle with the Supreme Court of Canada. The Jesuit Catholic School was hoping to teach their religion courses through a Catholic perspective, arguing that all of the necessary modules and competency requirements would be met under the provincial Ethics and Religious Culture program. Introduced in 2008, the program replaced the pre-existing religion curriculum that catered to individual schools based on their religious affiliation.

Loyola High School recently won a case before the Supreme Court of Canada regarding religious teaching. Photo from Loyola High School’s Facebook Page.

I was in ninth grade when the program was implemented, and as a Loyola High School alumnus I remember everything vividly. My friends in public school did not have particularly nice things to say about it. As a school, we feared losing this fundamental right to teach the religion course that corresponded to our heritage and values. The future of our school as we knew it was in jeopardy. But there was one main concern that everyone in the Loyola community shared.

Let me start off my saying that I am a big believer in the public school system. The concept of the private school system seems quite ridiculous to me in a lot of ways, especially if we are in a society that promotes equality and hopes to minimize segregation. However, when I think about having children in the future, there’s no doubt that I would want to pay for them to go to Loyola—a semi-private school. It has built its reputation as a great school for sports, academics and spirituality, a unique combination that be found nowhere else in the province—unfortunately.

The main question to ask is: does the government have the right to force their courses on Loyola? Simply put, they do because Loyola is a semi-private school, meaning they get funding from the state. Loyola appealed this law, hoping to win its case on the grounds of religious freedom while at the same time fulfilling the requirements of their world religions course, but done from a Catholic perspective. The Quebec Court of Appeal disagreed, but that ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court. Now, the school must apply to the Quebec Ministry of Education for an exemption to teach the course, which must be guided by the Supreme Court ruling, according to CBC.

“The Ethics and Religious Culture program was conceived as a way to teach students to recognize the value of others and the pursuit of the common good,” former Loyola principal Paul Donovan told CBC. “These are laudable goals that we share and wish to inculcate in our students. However, we do not believe that religious values in the context of our school need to be suppressed to accomplish this.”

With the ruling going in Loyola’s favour this past week, many people are saying that it’s not religion that is being challenged but secularism. Quebec law on this course says that it must be taught in a secular and morally neutral way. Since different religions can contradict one another, how can a course like this be taught in a neutral way, if not by ridiculing each faith in turn? At the very least, other methods—such as a religious perspective—must be accepted.

So why did the Supreme Court have a different opinion than the Quebec Court of Appeal on the issue? The short answer is that each court was composed of judges with different opinions, but the long answer is that, in my opinion, the rest of Canada seemingly does not have a problem with religious institutions nearly as much as Quebec does. We’ve seen it recently with the Parti Quebecois’ proposed “Charter of Values” when they held power. And don’t think there won’t be more issues in Quebec like this to come: supporters of secularism in Quebec appear to want to put their values above religious values, instead of working to harmonize them.

“To ask a religious school’s teachers to discuss other religions and their ethical beliefs as objectively as possible does not seriously harm the values underlying religious freedom,” Justice Rosalie Abella wrote for the majority. “But preventing a school like Loyola from teaching and discussing Catholicism in any part of the program from its own perspective does little to further those objectives while at the same time seriously interfering with the values underlying religious freedom.”

In recent history, secularism has been used to combat religious extremism in a variety of cases around the world, but this case is far from being religious extremism. Therefore it begs the question: is secularism the answer to all religious issues? Or are there simple, alternative answers like the exemption proposed in the case of Loyola?

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