A recent Supreme Court decision raises pressing questions about the changing nature of the relationship between religion and state in our increasingly multicultural society.
Does religion belong in Canadian schools? This question is by no means new, but a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada has again placed it at the forefront of debates over Canadian identity and multiculturalism. On Feb. 17, the court upheld the constitutionality of Quebec’s Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program. Part of the mandatory primary- and secondary-school curriculum in Quebec since 2008, the ERC program replaced Catholic and Protestant religious education in public schools. In brief, it promotes an understanding of major world religions, including aboriginal spirituality, as well as some reflection on ethical questions such as the meaning of societal values and norms. In S.L. vs. Commission scolaire des Chênes, parents concerned about the program’s teachings lobbied for the right to exempt their child from the course, but the Supreme Court rejected their appeal. The implications of this case stretch beyond the merits of the ERC program itself, highlighting the very real challenges facing Canada’s culturally and religiously diverse society with respect to the delicate interaction between religion and state.
The ERC program and the Supreme Court decision have drawn criticism from a variety of corners. Secular groups, and some members of the media, have argued that religion has no place in public life, let alone public schools, and should be relegated to people’s homes and religious institutions. Many see this separation as an implicit part of our constitutional framework, despite the fact that Canada, unlike the United States, does not have an explicit separation of church and state as found in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Religious organizations, and, indeed, the parents who challenged the constitutionality of the program in court, are concerned that the ERC curriculum promotes a sort of religious relativism in which children are taught that all religions are equally valid, and that this may clash with the religious education that parents are attempting to instill in their children at home.
The Supreme Court, however, judged the ERC program to be “neutral” in its teachings of various religions, and stated that, “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.” It is worth recognizing the importance of programs like the ERC in terms of both Canada’s multicultural policy and our public willingness to engage with religious issues in an increasingly religiously illiterate society.
Since the 1980s, our brand of multiculturalism has largely engaged with Canadian diversity within the categories of race or ethnicity, and has tended to avoid issues pertaining to religion. This is problematic for a number of reasons. For one thing, religion and ethnicity are highly connected, and many Canadians assign important roles to religion in their daily lives. Furthermore, the growing number of religious minorities in Canada means the nature of the state’s interaction with religious issues is ever more important. Since much of the last decade’s discrimination has been directed towards religious minorities, any effective anti-racism program (a cornerstone of Canada’s official policy of multiculturalism) must address discrimination and prejudice directed towards religious identities.
If we wish to foster connections between our diverse communities, we would be remiss to ignore the importance that religion plays in so many citizens’ lives. An education on the diversity of religion, including atheism and spirituality, that seeks to develop greater understanding of religion and its role in public life may present an important opportunity to develop these bonds. After all, it is the youth of the nation that represent our best hope for a sustainable, successful multiculturalism, and what better way to ensure that success than through an education that reflects the nature of Canadian diversity?
Those who advocate a strict separation of church and state, hold more militant anti-religious perspectives, or fear that programs like ERC represent a form of relativism that could undermine faith will have little appetite for this kind of program. However, studies show that multi-religious societies form a sort of open market of religious choice and information that encourages, rather than impedes, faith. Thus, such critics should take solace in the fact that organized religions ultimately benefit from religious diversity.
Critics should also note that the ERC program is a strictly academic and informative endeavour that seeks to foster understanding – not confusion, proselytizing, or conversion. Indeed, Denis Watters, who is in charge of the ERC program, has stated that the program intends “to equip [students] with knowledge that will help them decode the meanings of the various religious expressions around them.” It is important that the ERC (and programs like it) clearly communicate these goals to parents and students, dispelling false understandings and promoting the benefits of cultural insight.
If we, as a nation, are committed to multiculturalism, we must engage with the increasingly religiously diverse nature of our society. Failure to do so will only encourage the patterns of religious divisiveness that have marked so much of world history.
Photo courtesy of Reuters.