15 July 2010

Victory for religious freedom in Québec

It is difficult to recall that, prior to half a century ago, Québec’s French-speaking population was almost entirely Roman Catholic, with high rates of church attendance and a high birth rate. Its intellectual élite, typified by Fr. Lionel Groulx, saw Québec as having a mission to advance the cause of true Christianity in a largely anglophone and protestant North America. All of this changed with startling swiftness beginning in 1960 with the onset of the province’s Révolution tranquille, or Quiet Revolution. Within a very few years church attendance and birthrate alike plummeted, leaving a radically secularized society in its wake. Today Roman Catholicism is a marginalized minority viewpoint.

Given this history, the Québec Superior Court’s recent decision in favour of Montréal’s Loyola High School comes as a surprise, albeit an encouraging one. The provincial government had mandated all schools to teach a religion and ethics course which, the private school argues, conflicts with its own Catholic principles. Justice Gérard Dugré agreed with the school, charging that the law violates the freedom of religion guaranteed in Québec’s Charter of Rights. The National Post reports:

“In these times of respect of fundamental rights, of tolerance, of reasonable accommodations and of multiculturalism, the attitude adopted by the [Education] Department in the current matter is surprising,” Judge Dugré wrote. He added that forcing Loyola to teach the course in a secular way “assumes a totalitarian quality essentially equivalent to the order given to Galileo by the Inquisition to renounce Copernican cosmology.” . . .

Education Minister Michelle Courchesne yesterday called the ruling “excessive” and Premier Jean Charest said the need to appeal the decision is clear. . . . The course, Ethics and Religious Culture, is mandatory for all children in Grades 1 though 11. Its introduction followed a 1997 constitutional amendment replacing the province’s denominational school boards with linguistic ones and a 2005 law that removed parents’ right to choose a course in Catholic, Protestant or moral instruction.

The course covers the full spectrum of world religions and belief systems, with an emphasis on Christianity, Judaism and aboriginal spirituality. Critics have said it promotes a moral relativism, in which all belief systems are of equal value. In its pleadings before the court, Loyola argued that this relativism trivializes the religious experience promoted in all facets of the school’s teachings.

“Faith is omnipresent in this institution,” Loyola’s lawyer, Jacques Darche, said following a news conference at the school yesterday. “Before football games, they pray. Before a press conference, they pray. It’s quite bizarre that in the one course that you would expect to be a part of a Catholic Jesuit school, the religion program, you’re not allowed to talk about God, you’re not allowed to pray.”

Unfortunately, the Quiet Revolution led, not to a recognition of the need to protect religious freedom, but to the establishment of a new religion of secularism, coupled with a barely disguised hostility to traditional Christianity. There is reason to hope that the current controversy will help to expose the true nature of this establishment, particularly in the all-important realm of education.

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