Supreme Court upholds religious freedom, kinda, sorta

The Supreme Court has ruled that a Catholic school can teach Catholicism as if it were true, and not just another opinion. One would think this was an obvious right of a religious school, but the government Quebec has gone overboard, as is its wont, in pushing a secular agenda on everyone.

It is as if Quebec had abandoned Christianity but kept the worst aspects of Roman Catholic social conformity, rather than keeping Christianity and rejecting Catholic insistence that we all think  the same thing at the same time.

The judgment of the Court is found here.

Madam Justice Abella wrote for the majority:


Freedom of religion means that no one can be forced to adhere to or refrain from a particular set of religious beliefs. This includes both the individual and collective aspects of religious belief. Religious freedom under the Charter must therefore account for the socially embedded nature of religious belief, and the deep linkages between this belief and its manifestation through communal institutions and traditions.

                    The context in this case is state regulation of religious schools. This raises the question of how to balance robust protection for the values underlying religious freedom with the values of a secular state. The state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that students in all schools are capable, as adults, of conducting themselves with openness and respect as they confront cultural and religious differences. A vibrant, multicultural democracy depends on the capacity of its citizens to engage in thoughtful and inclusive forms of deliberation. But a secular state does not — and cannot — interfere with the beliefs or practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests. Nor can a secular state support or prefer the practices of one group over another. The pursuit of secular values means respecting the right to hold and manifest different religious beliefs. A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them.

Loyola is a private Catholic institution. The collective aspects of religious freedom — in this case, the collective manifestation and transmission of Catholic beliefs — are a crucial part of its claim. The Minister’s decision requires Loyola to teach Catholicism, the very faith that animates its character, from a neutral perspective. Although the state’s purpose is secular, this amounts to requiring a Catholic institution to speak about its own religion in terms defined by the state rather than by its own understanding. This demonstrably interferes with the manner in which the members of an institution formed for the purpose of transmitting Catholicism can teach and learn about the Catholic faith. It also undermines the liberty of the members of the community who have chosen to give effect to the collective dimension of their religious beliefs by participating in a denominational school.

                    In the Quebec context, where private denominational schools are legal, preventing a school like Loyola from teaching and discussing Catholicism from its own perspective does little to further the ERC Program’s objectives while at the same time seriously interfering with religious freedom. The Minister’s decision suggests that engagement with an individual’s own religion on his or her own terms can be presumed to impair respect for others. This assumption led the Minister to a decision that does not, overall, strike a proportionate balance between the Charter protections and statutory objectives at stake in this case.

But here comes the large qualification:

That said, the Minister is not required to permit Loyola to teach about the ethics of other religions from a Catholic perspective. The risk of such an approach would be that other religions would necessarily be seen not as differently legitimate belief systems, but as worthy of respect only to the extent that they aligned with the tenets of Catholicism. This contradicts the ERC Program’s goals of ensuring respect for different religious beliefs. In a multicultural society, it is not a breach of anyone’s freedom of religion to be required to learn (or teach) about the doctrines and ethics of other world religions in a neutral and respectful way. In a religious high school, where students are learning about the precepts of one particular faith throughout their education, it is arguably even more important that they learn, in as objective a way as possible, about other belief systems and the reasons underlying those beliefs.

                    Teaching the ethical frameworks of other religions in a neutral way may be a delicate exercise, but the fact that there are difficulties in implementation does not mean the state should be asked to throw up its hands and abandon its objectives by accepting a program that frames the discussion of ethics primarily through the moral lens of a school’s own religion.

This is the part I do not understand. You can be respectful without being neutral. You can deal with a belief system as morally serious without accepting it, just as you can deal with Communism, or Aztec heart sacrifice, without for a minute accepting its premises.

You can be neutral without being respectful, as for example, Dawkins and other materialists are neutral but disrespectful towards all metaphysical and religious concepts.

Why indeed, should a religious school be prohibited from framing the discussion of ethics primarily through the moral lens of the school’s own religion?

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Blair Atholl

the dissenting opinions are worth a read. It’s always surprising to find the court defending religious freedom on any kind because the media, who know little about it, despise it. Mostly because the bible fails to acknowledge transexual rights, near as I can tell.

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