Shauna Van Praagh is an associate professor in the McGill University Faculty of Law. She is the co-editor of Stateless Law: Evolving Boundaries of a Discipline, to be published by Ashgate Press in May, 2015.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that a Jesuit high school in Montreal could replace the provincially mandated and faith-neutral "Ethics and Religious Culture" program with a frankly confessional version. Even if anchored in and infused with one faith, the educational program can satisfy government requirements as long as it treats and teaches other religious traditions and communities with respect, the court concluded.
The Loyola High School decision signals that there is official space for variations on a central theme. But those variations aren't in the hands of the Court; they will depend on actors and conversations at the heart of the school board's religion program itself.
"Ethics and Religious Culture" (ERC) has been part of the Quebec-wide mandatory secondary school curriculum since 2008. No matter their faith or cultural heritage, all Quebec teenagers are expected to participate in a program meant to enrich awareness and knowledge of a spectrum of ethical, cultural and religious approaches to human existence and interaction. Since its inception, ERC has been invested with high hopes and sharp sensibilities – it is a program designed to foster empathy, sharing, mindfulness and critical thinking, and a symbol of the shaping of the future of Quebec society. This is the second time in its seven-year existence that it has been challenged in the Supreme Court: first, unsuccessfully, by Roman Catholic parents who argued for exemption of their children and now, successfully, by a Catholic school.
When Loyola High School requested official recognition of its own version of ERC as equivalent to the program mandated by the Quebec Ministry of Education, it consciously moved itself to the centre of an often passionate discussion about the relationship of a secular, diverse state to the religious communities and institutions that exist and flourish within it. In the name of institutional religious freedom and autonomy, the school challenged an educational program explicitly committed to recognizing the reality and promise of social diversity in contemporary Quebec.
From beginning to end, Quebec and Loyola exchanged claims and responses shaped by insistence on their own space and suspicion of intrusion by the other. Quebec courts gave contradictory answers. By the time the dispute reached the Supreme Court, their arguments were carved out in terms that showed much less flexibility than might have been the case had the conversation unfolded in a way not so invested in clash and more open to reconciliation.
Now that the end of the litigation line has been reached, we are in some ways back where we started. Government regulations and regulators of education must show openness; religious schools must participate in the collective endeavor of teaching, learning and shaping citizenship. Now, as before, the success of ERC requires imagination, dedication, cooperation and respect. In the ideal aftermath of the Court's decision, each side would better appreciate the effort and vantage point of the other. That vision might be naive at the level of the administration of either a school or a province. The one place where it might not be is in ERC courses themselves.
As of tomorrow, why not make the Loyola judgment part of the ERC curriculum in all its variations? After all, it tackles important subjects that deserve attention in an academic program for adolescents focused on the co-existence of related but distinct ways of thinking about religious and ethical sources and issues. Every ERC classroom – in its unique mix of institutional settings, teachers, and students – can engage in analysis of the Supreme Court decision. Formal conversations in law about the contours of Ethics and Religious Culture are valuable. But the best place to look for the implications of this judgment will be secondary school classrooms and corridors. And the best judges of ERC will turn out to be its students.