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Faith Exchange: Religion and the parental prerogative

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What are the limits to raising our children as we see fit? Every parent, child, teacher and neighbour can relate to the question. It's by no means a religious issue alone, but Canadians have seen it in the news lately with strong links to faith. A few examples:

  • In Kingston, Ont., three members of the immigrant Shafia family were convicted of murdering three daughters (and another female relative) who challenged their father’s strong cultural and religious beliefs about their upbringing.
  • In Quebec, parents of various stripes have revolted against the province’s mandatory “ethics and religious culture” school course, which is seen as either too respectful of religion or not respectful enough.
  • In British Columbia, police and the courts have probed questions of child trafficking and abuse related to underage polygamist “marriages.”
  • In Ontario, Catholic school boards have struggled to reconcile church teachings with government efforts to fight bullying of gay students.

Almost every Canadian would agree that parental rights stop short of killing one's children, no matter what the creed. But clearly there are many grey areas in this debate, which Faith Exchange panelists have convened to discuss.

Guy Nicholson: Thanks for joining us today, panelists. Have you ever found yourself in a position of parenthood where society's requirements conflicted with your faith?

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Peter Stockland: Years ago, we were involved in a bitter fight over keeping our kids' school francophone and Catholic in Alberta. There was a lot of pressure to have it run as a public school. This was in Alberta, where we had the constitutional right to French language and Catholic education. Even Premier Ralph Klein got involved, asking, "What is a Catholic paper clip?" as if it was all about resources. Our response was that our kids did not have a francophone head and a Catholic head. They were francophone Catholics. Point finale.

Lorna Dueck: Yes, I have. When my children were young, I protected and steered them away from things in society that I felt conflicted with the character of Christ. I made a bubble of warm, fuzzy, perfect world around them, or at least I tried to maintain that façade for a few of those wonderfully simple early years.

Sheema Khan: We have three children, ages 9, 14 and 15. They have attended a variety of public schools, private non-religious schools and private Islamic schools. We have not faced any "dilemmas" regarding school requirements that may be at odds with our faith, at least not yet. Or if we have, I can't seem to recall them, since they have been amicably resolved. For our two older kids, we have welcomed the classes having to do with sex education as an opportunity to speak further, in private, at home, about moral teachings having to do with intimate relationships before marriage.

I can only recall my own experience as a child of immigrants growing up in Montreal, when we were required to recite the Lord's Prayer in public school. My parents instructed me simply to keep silent (since the prayer was not part of our belief system).

One year, when my two older children were in a private (non-confessional) school, there was a kerfuffle because one or a few parents objected to a Christmas play, whereas we fully endorsed participation by our children, so they might learn from and participate in the customs of such an auspicious holiday.

Guy Nicholson: I was thinking about the Lord's Prayer when I was preparing for this discussion. I think that even if you believe strongly that prayer shouldn't be mandated in secular public schools (which I do), there's a lot to be gained from Sheema's very tolerant approach.

Howard Voss-Altman: While I respect Sheema's very tolerant approach, I fundamentally disagree with it. In a public-school setting, such prayers are an establishment of religion by the state and – by design – are meant to exclude minority religious beliefs or the non-believer. In a private-school setting, it is up to the individual parent to determine the limits of religious tolerance. Personally, as a religious minority, I would not want my children to be forced to remain silent (and suffer the potential harm of social exclusion) while others were praying. I would not choose such a school for their education.

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Guy Nicholson: Absolutely – I don't think tolerance should be a substitute for advocating the right thing. It's just a wonderful attitude to make the most of what life gives you – to use something like that as a learning opportunity.

Howard Voss-Altman: I'm not quite sure I see your perspective. Do you think it is (or would be) appropriate to be exposed to the Lord's Prayer in a school setting? Is that the learning opportunity you are referring to?

Guy Nicholson: No, I don't at all think it was appropriate to have prayer mandated in school. I'm glad those days are over. I do think her response to it was great – her family used sex ed as an introduction to home discussion, they respectfully declined to participate in the prayer and they used a Christmas play as an opportunity to learn about another faith's customs.

Sheema Khan: We were brand new to Canada, and at the time, we did not know our rights. Some children were excused. I actually enjoyed listening to the Lord's Prayer, because portions resonated with my belief in one God (Allah, in Arabic) – reflecting on the magnificence of God, being grateful for provisions, asking for forgiveness, forgiving others, asking for protection against evil. I loved starting my day off in that frame of mind. I never felt socially excluded. I had Christian friends who would mumble the words, and not take it as seriously as I did. However, I do agree that for a state-sponsored inclusive system, there should be no exclusion based on faith.

Howard Voss-Altman: Thanks for the clarification. I should note that our children go to the Waldorf School here in Calgary, where "spirituality" is a very high priority. This often results in participation in Christian festivals, which our children have done as an opportunity to learn about other customs. However, all prayers are pan-spiritual, noting God as the creator and sustainer of the Earth. My issue has always been with sectarian prayer in a compulsory setting.

Peter Stockland: The flip side of asserting the truth of your own faith has to be total circumspection in putting others in a situation of feeling obliged to recite your prayers. In addition to being inhospitable, it is sacrilegious on all sides. Prayers are not just to be said. They are to be believed. And if they are not believed, they should not be said.

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Guy Nicholson: Are you just talking about at school, or does that extend to the home? Aren't children put in a position of feeling obliged to recite a parent's prayers?

Howard Voss-Altman: In a word, Guy, yes. That's how all values – religious and non-religious – are transmitted. A family is not a democracy, at least not until the children reach an age of majority. Until then, it is up to the parents to inculcate our values. Choice is a luxury children will have at a much later stage in life.

Peter Stockland: There is clearly a difference between forming your own child on the faith of the family, teaching that child what prayers to say and how, and imposing them on a non-family member whose faith is already formed or in the active process of being formed differently from your own.

Guy Nicholson: Panelists, can you imagine a situation in which you might break the law in order to parent according to your beliefs?

Lorna Dueck: Well, that would depend on how distorted the law could become. Yes, I think parents in less than democratic countries do this, historically parents have had to show children a better way and future than a government might limit, and given that parents bear the responsibility for raising a child, yes, I think parenting overrides government. The child is not a creature of the state.

Peter Stockland: I would not break the law, but if I had a child or children at Loyola in Montreal I would certainly use the courts to combat the Quebec government's unlawful abuse of religious freedom that forces even private Catholic schools to teach the ethics and religious culture course.

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Howard Voss-Altman: It is difficult to imagine such a scenario. As a Reform rabbi, our movement prides itself on being both Jewish and modern, able to embrace the scientific world, and more importantly, a pluralistic world that recognizes many different paths to truth and enlightenment. If our children were faced with the prospect of, say, a neo-Nazi teacher, then we would certainly keep our children home until such teacher was suspended and/or terminated. But that hardly rises to the level of breaking the law.

If we are discussing civil disobedience regarding a political or social issue, then of course I would consider breaking the law to protest the unjust law. But it's hard to imagine such a law that would impact our ability to parent our children.

Guy Nicholson: How strongly do you feel about passing your faith on to your children?

Sheema Khan: My husband and I feel very strongly about teaching our children the foundations of our faith, and living the faith as fully engaged citizens. We believe that a moral framework is essential for healthy development of our children, which serves as a foundation upon which to build their character and identity. This moral framework also includes respect for the dignity of all of God's creation – the human family, animals, the environment and so on. It includes a commitment toward principles of justice (do unto others …) and compassion.

Of course, in the end, they will make their own choice, which we hope will include adherence to Islamic principles. However, there is no guarantee. Each person has been given the faculty of choice.

Peter Stockland: I cannot imagine failing to raise my children in our faith. Of course, there comes a time when they must choose which faith, or none at all, to follow. But if you are a person of faith, my strong belief is you are denying your children authentic choice unless you provide a foundation in childhood. A strong foundation.

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Howard Voss-Altman: I feel very strongly about passing the Jewish faith on to my children. However, such faith is passed on through moral teaching, home observance, attendance and participation in the synagogue, and of course all the cultural and ethnic education that is available to them. If parochial school becomes the conduit for passing on our heritage, we have not fulfilled our role as parents.

Lorna Dueck: I felt that was very important, but in saying that, I mean I wanted to educate my children in a way that encouraged them to examine the evidence for Christianity, hear the stories, watch the lives and fruit of faith and think this through. We're not making robots out of our children, indoctrinating them, but rather, the more they get to know the world, the more they will get to know their need for Jesus.

I took Scriptures seriously on this. There's a passage where Jesus tells his followers, "Let the children come to me. Don't stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these." That innate spirituality in my young children challenged me – and kept me on my toes trying to respond to their curiosity. They are young adults now and I have not asked their permission to write about this – sorry, kids.

Peter Stockland: I wonder if others would agree that it is important, too, to teach our children that there are things we believe are true. We believe in our faith precisely because we believe it to be true. Anything else would be an absurdity.

Guy Nicholson: Have government and secular Canadian society been too intrusive in telling us how to raise our children? Or what about the other sides of that coin – have religious leaders been too intrusive in telling us how to raise our children? Have religious people been too intrusive in telling others how to raise their children?

Peter Stockland: Without question, in my mind, the state and what we consider society has been far too intrusive in this regard. And the resulting pushing of religious faith into the purely "private" sphere has dangerous consequences.

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Sheema Khan: I think our society is a little sensitive about religion in the public sphere. That is, we are expected to keep our faith private, unassuming and hidden. While there can be merit to some aspects of such an approach, I believe that it stifles the natural inclination of those who simply live their faith naturally, openly, without any desire to convert others.

I lived in the United States for seven years and of course their approach to religion in the public sphere is completely different. It is an inherent right to express your religious beliefs, provided you do not harm others. Of course, the state has no right to favour one faith over another. Yet, one can freely express one's faith. Here, I find that type of natural freedom is tempered. I'd like to know where this comes from.

Howard Voss-Altman: Our experience has been that the school system appears to reflect a healthy, diverse, pluralistic approach to the world. Science is emphasized at the expense of religious dogma, and modernity is emphasized at the expense of superstition. This seems to me a healthy, respectful Canadian approach to raising children in a multicultural world. I don't have the sense that any side is particularly intrusive with respect to the transmission of values.

On a personal note, however, I do believe (with my tongue in cheek) that Canadian children are, on the whole, far too polite. Every so often, it's good to have a vocal disagreement. It keeps things interesting.

Peter Stockland: I would respectfully disagree with Howard that the Canadian school system is diverse and pluralistic. It is increasingly unitary in its aggressive secularity that compels worship of the state, the state and nothing but the state. Sorry if that is impolite.

Howard Voss-Altman: Not at all. I believe that our school system reflects a desire to create proud, civic-minded Canadians, who are able to participate in society in an intelligent and productive fashion. I believe that mission includes the right – and profound importance – of dissent, and that our teachers are indeed transmitting those values. We might be saying the same thing, but we have a different perspective as to its relative value.

Peter Stockland: Or you don't live in Quebec. :)

Lorna Dueck: An interesting example of this tension is playing out in Ontario's anti-bullying legislation, Bill 13. Religious parents agree we have to do more to stop bullying, and that seems to be covered in a private member's submission, Bill 14. Bill 13 addresses the same issues and generated a firestorm of controversy with its overt focus on the LGBTTIQ [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual, Transgender, Intersex and Queer] equity agenda.

The complaint I hear is that there would be penalties for pulling your child out of those classes (those equity education classes are different than sex ed classes). So here's a fresh example where parents who want to raise their children to follow their beliefs are wondering: Will my child be penalized for voicing moral discomfort over LGBTTIQ? Christian parents should teach their children to love and accept all who self-identify in LGBTTIQ realities and protect them from bullying. But parents fear that Bill 13 will give school authorities the licence to enforce rigid ideological conformity. In the name of tolerance, alternative views could be suppressed.

That takes us to Canada's original conflict over religion and gay issues in elementary schooling – the 2002 Chamberlain v Surrey School District No. 36 case. I liked how Supreme Court Justice Charles Gonthier summarized the dilemma: "Why should religiously informed conscience be placed at public disadvantage or disqualification? To do so would be to distort liberal principles in a … feeble notion of pluralism."

The Bill 13/14 controversy is a government-induced conflict that religious leaders warn could trigger expensive lawsuits, publically funded ones, for years to come. Activists warn that this is a case where religious parents are too intrusive. Love will have to win the day – that's the religious definition of tolerance.

Sheema Khan: I think it is important as parents, that we actively engage with our children about faith and the challenges that they face. If a child is secure in who she or he is, then that person is able to negotiate an increasingly complex world with confidence, rather than fear. I would hope that the framework of faith that my husband and I provide our children enables them to chart their own path with wonderment, humility and a sense of responsibility to make this world a better place.

Howard Voss-Altman: Yes, it has. Thank you for a beautifully written response.

Lorna Dueck: Whether it's public prayer, or disagreeable ethics, we all have to learn to listen to one another. If we do share our deepest convictions with each other, we should expect controversy, it shouldn't mean that at the end of the day our kids can't play together. Healthy democracy can handle this.

Guy Nicholson: That's our time for today. Thanks to all for an interesting discussion.

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