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Quebec teacher sparks outrage by removing 'God' from Piaf song

A teacher's decision to remove a reference to God from a song by the French singer Edith Piaf has triggered the latest round in the debate over reasonable accommodation in Quebec.

Everett Collection/Library of Congress

Quebec parents, politicians and music lovers are outraged that an elementary school music teacher chose to censor part of a song by French musical icon Edith Piaf because of a reference to God, a move that has become a new flashpoint in the debate over reasonable accommodation.

In preparing a performance by 10- and 11-year-old students, the music teacher at Saint-Gabriel-Lalemant School in Sorel-Tracy, just east of Montreal, decided to eliminate the last sentence of Edith Piaf's masterful love song Hymn to Love. The words "God, reunite those who love each other" were removed from one of the most acclaimed French love songs ever written.

Parents throughout the province reacted with disbelief, expressing their bewilderment on several websites. Education Minister Line Beauchamps and Culture Minister Christine St.-Pierre also waded into the debate.

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It makes no sense. It's outright censorship," Ms. St.-Pierre said. "Since when is it religious to sing an hymn to love? Well really!"

"You just don't change the words of a song like that," Ms. Beauchamps said. "In Quebec there is no ban on using the words God or Jesus. The song is part of the francophone repertoire. Plenty of Quebec songs refer to God."

A spokesman for the Sorel-Tracy school board defended the teacher's decision, saying that the song was presented to students in its entirety. The teacher told the students the reference to God would be removed in the performance because it was preferable to discuss the issue either at home or during a course on Ethics and Religious Cultures provided in the school curriculum.

"For some the decision could appear to be shocking or even unreasonable," school board president Denis Rajotte explained. He said teachers "are walking on eggs" when they are confronted with issues such the reasonable accommodation of religious beliefs in a secular school.

"There are currently no manuals, guides or legal texts to help a teacher to make decision on such a delicate issue," Mr. Rajotte said.

The Parti Québécois blamed the government for the controversy, saying it failed to put out clear guidelines with respect to the reasonable accommodation of religions and cultures in Quebec society.

"This decision shows the absence of guidelines to determine what is acceptable and what isn't," said PQ critic Carole Poirier.

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It has been almost four years since the Bouchard-Taylor report on reasonable accommodations was completed.

On Thursday, the Charest government suggested it may proceed with debate on a bill currently on the order paper that reinforces the values of Quebec society such as the equality between men and women, while defining how religious rights can be exercised in a secular society.

While the province hesitates, the Sorel-Tracy school board will act quickly to avoid any similar controversies. School board officials will meet next week to define reasonable accommodation guidelines for its schools.

"We will draw lessons from this incident and examine constructive ways to make sure that it doesn't happen again," said Éric Choinière, secretary-general of the Sorel-Tracy school board.

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