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Quebec parents challenge no-religion rule for daycares

Daycare facility at L'Oreal's office in Montreal in this 2008 photo. UBC's Kevin Milligan says that just because his research found little evidence of a positive impact of parental leave on development outcomes, it does not follow that leaves are necessarily poor policy.

John Morstad/john morstad The Globe and Mail

Quebec's effort to oust God from daycare is facing a court challenge from a group of parents, who say the plan is forcing educators to do everything from rewrite nursery tunes to ban angels from Christmas trees.

A coalition of mostly Catholic and Jewish parents has filed an injunction to suspend the no-religion rules, which are to come into effect in the province's 1,400 publicly financed daycares starting Wednesday.

The new policy brings the province's push toward secularism to the tot-and-toddler set by prohibiting the teaching of a particular faith - and Family Minister Yolande James says the regime will launch Wednesday as scheduled.

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"This was something that was well thought-out," Ms. James said in an interview. Quebec's daycares cost parents $7 a day and are heavily subsidized by the state, she said. "In that context, contrary to private daycare, the teaching of religion is not appropriate."

But a newly formed group, Quebeckers for Equal Rights to Subsidized Day Cares, argues the government directives are vague, a bureaucratic headache to apply, and discriminate against parents who believe daycares should be an extension of the family home. The group is challenging the rules under the Quebec and Canadian charters.

"This is a fundamental question," said Marie-Josée Hogue, lawyer for the coalition, which includes more than 200 parents and associations from the Catholic, Jewish and Egyptian Copt communities. "The benefits of the law should be the same without distinctions like religion and belief." Daycare, she said, "is a substitute to the home environment."

The government's directives lay out a complex set of dos-and-don'ts: It's okay if a three-year-old initiates a religious act individually, but an educator can't do the same if it's aimed at children. A priest or imam can visit a daycare but not offer religious instruction.

In practice, at least one daycare director has already told an educator to drop a reference to God in the popular song Au Clair de la Lune, according to members of the coalition. Books with Bible stories are being pulled off shelves, and children can henceforth be told about the building of Noah's Ark but not that God commanded it.

"This will be paralyzing for our educators. They are emotionally broken. For them it's like punishing the children," said Danielle Sabbah, president of an association of 17 Jewish daycares. "In Jewish culture it's very difficult to separate religion, tradition and culture."

The coalition said that when the Parti Québécois government introduced its popular universal daycare network in the 1998, the centres were to be reflections of the diverse communities they served. Today about 100 daycares offer some form of religious focus representing the Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Greek Orthodox faiths. The new policy, announced last year, will be implemented by 58 inspectors; daycares found in violation risk losing their subsidy, which amounts to about $40 per child per day.

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