This is a textbook case of going from one extreme to the other. For decades, the Quebec government slept in the bed of the Roman Catholic Church. Nowadays, its secularist agenda is so radical it applies to three-year-old kids.
Earlier this month, Family Minister Yolande James announced a ban on religious instruction in subsidized daycare centres. Ms. James's ministry will triple the number of inspectors, to 58, and violations will be punished by the suppression of funding, which amounts to $40 a day per child, since parents pay no more than $7 a day.
How will these bureaucrats make the distinction between culture and religion? Showing an amazing lack of subtlety, Ms. James seemed to think that would be easy enough. For instance, a daycare centre would be allowed to display a Christmas tree (a cultural symbol, she decreed - which is highly debatable since Christmas is a Christian holy day). The teachers could set up a Nativity scene but couldn't tell the kids who the baby doll in the manger was.
Presumably, by the same token, a Jewish daycare centre could have a menorah but would be forbidden to tell the children why one candle should be lit every day. And Muslim toddlers couldn't be told why their parents don't eat when the sun is up, since Ramadan is a religious, rather than a cultural, custom.
Crafts, role-playing and songs with religious connotations will be banned. Religious objects might be allowed but "in small quantity" and shouldn't serve for religious instruction. And here's the best part of this rather comic scenario: A rabbi, a priest or an imam could visit the centre - as long as they don't talk about religious matters!
At a Montreal daycare centre run by Catholic nuns, a parents association was so terrified at the prospect of losing governmental subsidies that it decided to apply the guidelines six months before they'll be implemented. So the week before Christmas, the little kids sang insipid Bing Crosby ballads instead of beautiful traditional carols such as Silent Night.
"We've never indoctrinated our children in 30 years of existence," said Sister Rousselle of the Don Bosco daycare centre, "but celebrating Christmas without being able to talk about Jesus, for me this is not Christmas."
Daniel Amar, executive director of the Quebec Jewish Congress, wondered how bureaucrats would be able to distinguish between religion, custom and tradition. "In Quebec, secularism has become the new religion." The idea of inspectors patrolling daycare centres to censor the innocent activities of children is repulsive, indeed.
Salam Elmenyawi of the Muslim Council of Montreal wants to challenge the policy in court in the name of religious rights. Pierre Anctil, a specialist in intercultural relations, thinks the guidelines will be difficult to apply, and he, too, believes they might be unconstitutional. "This is a delicate question, and the state's involvement might lead to arbitrary decisions." Mr. Anctil was part of a consultative committee set up by the Family Minister to look into the projected guidelines, but he soon realized "the decision was already taken and it was non-negotiable." He quit after the first meeting.
The irony is, these guidelines contradict Quebec's current policy on religious private schools. Confessional grade schools and high schools are partly subsidized (for about 60 per cent of the cost per child) and are allowed to teach religion as long as they follow the province's curriculum.