Canada's Supreme Court has spurned Quebec parents who sought the right to keep their children out of an ethics and religious culture program taught in the province's schools. The program, which was introduced in 2008, replaced religion classes with a curriculum covering all major faiths found in Quebec culture, including Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and aboriginal beliefs.
"Exposing children to a comprehensive presentation of various religions without forcing the children to join them does not constitute an indoctrination of students that would infringe the freedom of religion," said the Court. Furthermore,
"the early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society. The suggestion that exposing children to a variety of religious facts in itself infringes their religious freedom or that of their parents amounts to a rejection of the multicultural reality of Canadian society and ignores the Quebec government’s obligations with regard to public education."
May Sikh children carry kirpans (daggers that have religious meanings for Sikhs) in school despite the fact that having knives at school is severely punished? May religious parents take their children out of sex-ed or gay rights classes? May girls wear burkas? May atheists not be exposed to any official mention of God? May Christian children have the right to study the Bible during recess? May Muslim children be excused from music and physical education classes or be given special accommodations for Friday prayers?
In conflict can be notions of parental rights, individual rights, religious rights, cultural identity, safety, Canadian values, government law, separation of church/mosque/synagogue/temple and state, and plain old-fashioned pragmatism. Is it reasonable to gender-segregate 300 six-year-olds playing dodge ball or duck-duck-goose because one child’s parents think it inappropriate for their first-grade son to play with girls? Is it reasonable to expect teachers or schools to navigate through the complications of 1,200 children, if half of them have different exemption requests covering everything from diet to clothing, exercise, curriculum, or exercise?
Yet parents have an extremely good point. Why do state officials have the right to insist that children are taught a single state-approved perspective on so many either explicitly or tangentially religious issues? Schools insist on teaching a view of sexual morality and homosexual relationships that is at odds with the traditional values of almost every, if not every, religion in the world. Is it not reasonable for parents to object?
Yet others would disagree, and maintain that not only accepting, but celebrating, things such as homosexual and other alternative lifestyles is a non-negotiable part of what it means to be a Canadian. The Toronto District School Board maintains that
“While the Board works to create a school system free from religious discrimination, this freedom is not absolute... If a parent/guardian/ caregiver asks for his or her child to be exempt from any discussion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or same-sex-family issue, the request cannot be granted because it violates the TDSB Human Rights Policy.”
While it is easy to argue both sides of this question, ultimately we need to remember that these are typically not mere matters of personal preference, but often strike at the heart of personal and family identity. Children are vulnerable, and children growing up in strongly religious or immigrant households are probably if anything more vulnerable than normal as they sense the dissonance (regardless of accommodation) between their home and school life. The last thing they assuredly need is for these two worlds to move from dissonance to outright hostility, or full-scale war.
Will banning burkas or headscarves in school advance gender equality? Not likely. The more likely option is that fundamentalist parents will simply keep their daughters under permanent house arrest, unable to ever set foot outside the house. Education may or may not, under these circumstances, be much of a priority. Particularly if the parents are illiterate in the majority language of the country. Even otherwise moderate families may feel under threat, and may become more radical than they otherwise would, making very sure that their children are in no danger whatsoever of being seduced by the secularism of the school.
Whether you think that an increased devotion to religion as a result of feeling under attack is a good thing or a bad thing will probably depend on your attitude towards religion in general and certain religions in particular. Your opinion about religious families withdrawing their children in favour of private schools or homeschooling will depend on your opinion of the benefits of homogenous public education.
As a homeschool graduate, I think that homeschooling, for example, is a perfectly legitimate choice for parents who wish to instill a particular religious perspective. But I know others will disagree, not least those who are most anxious to limit religious accommodation in school.
Refusing to accept and respect religious difference and the role of parents in deciding the education and upbringing of their children is likely to increase the conflict and dissonance in the life of the child who is caught in the middle. It may even backfire and encourage the very opinions it seeks to discourage.
That doesn’t mean that parents should get carte blanche to dictate to schools or demand a custom rewrite of the curriculum. But schools should be willing to do what they can to accommodate religious students, while religious parents should realize that after a certain point they should probably consider homeschooling or private schooling.
If nothing else, secularists should realize that by not compromising on these religious issues they risk losing the children altogether.
And yes, I realize that I just wrote an apologetic for religious parents to leave the public schools, no matter how friendly their system is. So be it.
Rebekah Hebbert is the Managing Editor of The Prince Arthur Herald, a centre-right student newspaper that circulates throughout Canada. A student of economics, she lives in Eastern Canada.