The Quebec government's new policy for excluding religious instruction from publicly subsidized Quebec daycare centres is a solution without a problem - and will involve an attempt to draw an distinction between religion and culture that will turn out to be impossible in practice.
Yolande James, the Minister of Families, announced the policy last week. It is meant to prevent the public funding of "activities that have the objective of teaching a belief, a dogma or the practice of a specific religion." The element of intention is tricky and could be far-reaching. On the other hand, children no older than five are hardly likely to be taught theology or religious law. The fine print of the policy tries to mark out some fine lines, and in the end is quite accommodating of particular customs, dietary practices and the "cultural aspects" of religious festivals.
The Parti Québécois says the policy will be easy to evade, and wants the government to take a harder line - which shows how much this is a minor skirmish, or a tactical manoeuvre, in a larger ideological battle about secularism, ethnic and religious diversity, Québécois identity and "reasonable accommodation." Ms. James estimates that 2,000 daycare spaces may be affected. The decision is apparently a response to media stories last winter about religious Jewish and Muslim daycare centres.
Meanwhile, the Quebec government subsidizes private schools, many of them religious, which comply with certain requirements, for about 30 per cent of their costs. And a crucifix is still prominently displayed in the National Assembly, a specific rejection of the Bouchard-Taylor commission's recommendation of strictly neutral public space for the legislature and the courts. By contrast, the daycare centres, though mainly publicly funded, are privately operated.
Ms. James' directive, taking effect in June, is more likely to create additional bureaucratic nuisances than to nip in the bud any nascent religious fanaticism among the very, very young.