In a decision that sets back Quebec's efforts to strip religion from the province's institutions, a judge has ruled that the government showed Inquisition-like intolerance in the way it imposed a secular ethics course on a private Roman Catholic school.
The ironic reference to religious zealotry in the pursuit of secularism came in a ruling that handed a victory to Montreal's Loyola High School. The Jesuit boy's school went to court for the right to keep teaching its ethics course from a Roman Catholic perspective.
In a decision handed down Friday, Superior Court Judge Gérard Dugré said that not only did Quebec violate Loyola's religious freedoms by insisting it teach the secular course, but also it went about it in a "totalitarian" manner.
"In this age of the respect of fundamental rights, of tolerance, reasonable accommodation and multiculturalism, the attitude adopted by the [education] minister is surprising," Judge Dugré wrote.
"The obligation imposed on Loyola to teach the ethics and religious culture course in a lay fashion assumes a totalitarian character essentially equivalent to Galileo's being ordered by the Inquisition to deny the Copernican universe."
The strongly worded decision sparked a renewed round of discussion over how far Quebec, which has struggled with the place of religion in the face of growing immigration, can go in imposing a secular vision on the province.
Premier Jean Charest, who has faced political pressure to give a secular face to Quebec, immediately announced on Monday that his government would go to appeal.
"It is too serious an issue which has been debated for a long time," the Premier said.
The government's ethics and religious course, introduced in 2008, aimed to give equal time to world religions, including Judaism, Islam and first nations spirituality, in response to growing immigration and pluralism in schools.
Loyola High School, an English-language school that has been educating boys since 1896 - among them former governor-general Georges Vanier and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty - argued that the government course imposed a "one-size-fits-all" approach to ethics and religion. It asked for an exemption.
The government said no. In a letter to the school, it said that while the government course was "cultural and not founded on faith," Loyola's aimed to "adopt a Jesuit perspective of Christian service." The two approaches to the notion of "common good" are very different, an Education Ministry official wrote.
Jacques Darche, the lawyer for Loyola, said the Quebec government's course prevented teachers from bringing their contributions to the debate. Under the government program, a discussion on abortion would lead the teacher to simply hear out all points of view, rather than favouring the Catholic belief that abortion is wrong.
"The teacher couldn't contribute. He's like an emcee," Mr. Darche said Monday in an interview after a news conference at the west-end Montreal school.
The judge, he said, drew "a line in the sand" over religion. "Where will the state stop in invading institutions like Loyola High School, especially on a question of religion?" he asked.
(Like most private school in Quebec, Loyola receives provincial government subsidies).
Mr. Darche noted that the judge referred in his ruling to the preamble of the Canadian Charter and its mention of God; it was Jesuit-educated prime minister Pierre Trudeau who proposed the inclusion in the constitution.
"Canadian democratic society," the judge wrote, "is based on principles recognizing the supremacy of God and the primacy of the law - both of which benefit from constitutional protection."
Proponents hailed Quebec's course as a historic shift after nearly two centuries dominated by Catholic and Protestant education, and a further move away from confessional schools in the province.
Although the court ruling applied to a private institution, parents of children in public schools who have also been fighting the government-mandated course said they hoped it handed them a moral, if not legal, victory. A group of parents lost a legal challenge in their bid to obtain an exemption for their children when a judge in Drummondville last year concluded their rights to religious freedom were not being violated.
Jean Morse-Chevrier, president of the Association of Catholic Parents of Quebec, said that while she was pleased with Judge Dugré's ruling, she felt is was creating two tiers of rights - those for parents in the private sector and those in the public system.