If teaching children about world religions is a form of indoctrination, as a Roman Catholic couple contended in Quebec, the public schools might as well be shut down. The schools’ only alternative would be to offer an education that offends no one, which is exactly in sync with the beliefs of all – an impossibility.
A Supreme Court ruling that upheld Quebec’s mandatory world-religions course shows why reasonable accommodation is such a fraught debate in that province. It is a debate that can only be settled in a spirit of compromise and togetherness. Rigidity perpetuates anxiety and conflict.
The world-religions course, given to elementary and secondary students, is part of Quebec’s change from a denominational public school system to a secular one. While the course is “aimed at fostering an understanding of several religious traditions,” it emphasizes Quebec’s religious heritage of Christianity. “The historical and cultural importance of Catholicism and Protestantism will be given particular prominence.” Yet despite this balanced (or more accurately, uneven) approach, it ran up against a rigid response from some Catholic parents.
The parents in question did not even feel an obligation to explain how the teaching at school interfered with their ability to transmit their religious beliefs to their children. They merely raised the bogey of “moral relativism” – apparently a world in which all religions are spoken of respectfully. The Supreme Court was baffled, saying that the course was “a comprehensive presentation of various religions without forcing the children to join them.”
By being in public schools, children and teens are exposed to a myriad of influences beyond the parents’ ability to control. “The cognitive dissonance that results from such encounters is simply a part of living in a diverse society,” Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote in a previous case, in which the court ruled that a British Columbia school board had acted improperly in keeping books about gay parents off its reading list for kindergarten and Grade 1 students. “It is also a part of growing up. Through such experiences, children come to realize that not all of their values are shared by others.”
These parents were not seeking a true religious accommodation. They simply wanted to shut out the influences of a diverse society on their children. They wanted to go back to a Quebec, and a Canada, that no longer exists.