Quebec, Religious Education and the Balance of Rights: Believing in the Personhood of Children and Youth

A child is a human being, and, as such, is a rights bearing individual. Stop.

A child has the same fundamental rights as an adult. Point.

All children are people whose rights are not dependent on the desires of anyone else, including their parents. End of story.

So, do we all have that simple lesson down? I can quiz everyone and they’ll get 100%? No? There are people in Quebec who still have it wrong? Well, damn. Time to blog angrily about it then.

So, what has my rage’o’metre so high lately? Well, lots of things, but the recent ruling on education in Quebec has me in quite a thither. A few weeks back, Justice Gérard Dugré in Quebec ruled that Loyola High School, a private Christian school, cannot be forced to adhere to the provincially mandated religion and ethics course as it impinges on the rights of religious parents to have their child educated in the morality structure of their choice.

This presents us with a wonderful example of a neglected area of conflict in the field of human rights today. Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants all Canadians the right to freedom of religion under section 2. This is the part of our constitution that guarantees all Canadians the right to follow a religion of their choice. It can also allow for accommodations for religious observance. For instance, in issues of employment, it can be used to argue that employees should be able to respect their religious holidays or wear religious dress.

However, the Charter applies to all individuals equally. Therefore, the assumption that parents must be absolutely protected in their “right” to have their children educated in the moral structure of their choice disregards the meaning of the Charter and rights in general. While I agree that allowing for a wide array of educational systems and styles is a good thing and that parents should have some choice in regards to the form of their child’s education, I believe that a child should never be denied information based on such reasoning and should always have the option of rejecting their parent’s decision because it was not the child’s choice. Children do not choose to be born into specific religions or systems of beliefs. Children often do not choose their own schools. They are guided by their parents, yet they should always have the opportunity to choose their own paths.

The class causing controversy in Quebec and my disgruntled ranting is called Ethics and Religious Culture. Its two primary principles are thus: the recognition of others and the pursuit of the common good. It is meant to be a descriptive course based on the history and realities of religion in Quebec and the world. It is not meant to be a class for religious instruction (not for secularism, Catholicism, Islam, or anything else), but a place wherein dialogue can be exchanged between different religious communities who must live alongside one another. It is meant to teach our students that there are all sorts of people in the world and we can all get along with a little effort and understanding. It shows Canadian youth that all individuals have equal worth regardless of where they come from or what they believe.

So, what exactly is the problem with such a course? We’re teaching students patience and compassion. We’re providing them with an education broader than what they may be exposed to within their own community or family. Furthermore, in no way does this course guarantee a destabilization of religious beliefs. The course is not designed to make all of Quebec’s children into secular robots or convert them to some other religion. It was designed to make students think and to give them the information required by today’s society to live in a diverse community. While information may challenge faith, it can also make faith stronger since it must be chosen in the face of doubt. So while there is danger that yes, a child could stray from their parent’s preferred world outlook, perhaps parents should worry more that basic information is enough to destroy an entire life’s worth of religious upbringing.

To illustrate how this course works, I would like to point to the following two statements:

1.    Jesus was a pasta-hating fraud and all Christians should be ashamed of who they are because the religion of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the one, true, right religion and all that refuse to acknowledge it as such should be sentenced to work in the meatball mines.

2.   Christianity is a world religion followed by billions of people around the globe. While it played a particularly important role in the formation of Canada, it is critical to note that Aboriginal spirituality and religions have also had significant effects on the way we view our nation. Furthermore, as people are becoming more mobile and travelling to live in different countries, other religions are becoming more important in Canada as well, such as Islam and Buddhism.

The first phrase is rhetoric. It claims that one religion is better than all others, it defames all difference and it is generally full of nonsense. None of its claims are backed up with any sort of fact. It is biased and offers no educational benefit.

The second phrase, on the other hand, is simply very basic information. It does not claim that any one religion is the best or the most important, nor does it lay blame on any one religion for ill effects on society in the past or the present. Sure, it does not presume that Christianity is the one, true way to God, but that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to educate youth on the realities of modern society because no matter how much effort and prayer is put into conversion attempts, the people of our world will not simply spontaneously decide to all follow an extreme example of groupthink and convert to a single religion.

The Ethics and Religious Culture course is supposed to represent teachings based on this latter phrase. Non-biased, objective, factual information given with only one hope in mind: to encourage a peaceful, educated, respectful society. Justice Dugré argued that it would be unfair to deny religious parents the right to have their children immersed in their religion, however, I argue that it is unfair to allow a segment of the population to enforce a belief on children that one type of people are superior. Teaching Ethics and Religious Culture, as I said, doesn’t need to be a threat to religion, but it does need to be taught without a foundation of perceived superiority or the goals it is attempting to achieve will be thwarted before a class can even open their text books. The Loyola decision is an example of how society fails children and refuses to acknowledge them as people. Ethics and Religious Cultures is not some insidious plot to brainwash Quebec youth into leaving traditional religions. It is an attempt to help them rise above prejudice and to better themselves and Canada.

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2 thoughts on “Quebec, Religious Education and the Balance of Rights: Believing in the Personhood of Children and Youth

  1. Oh, religious rights of parents, how you irk me! I side with Christopher Hitchens on this one: religious indoctrination qualifies as child abuse. But in a more tolerant vein, I would be willing to allow parents to teach their children whatever religious views they want. HOWEVER, public money should in no way be involved. Yes, I said it, there should be no public subsidy whatsoever for any school that teaches any kind of religiosity. Note please that this is completely different from religious education, meaning in this case teachig children about the history and major beliefs of world religions (such as the Ethics and religious culture course, although I would be much happier if the notion of ethics was separated from that of religion, but that’s another issue altogether), which should be mandatory for everyone. Churches, temples, assemblies or whatever they are called can do the indoctrination if they must, but not on my dime.

    • Exactly! I want people to have choices, even when they are children. In the family (however small or extended it may be), we will all absorb all sorts of beliefs, however, public education should be about putting those beliefs in context and offering a larger picture of the world. We should all be challenged on what we believe because it helps us grow, become more tolerant and understanding of the world around us.

      However, this particular belief seems to get me labelled as a nasty, secular leftie too influenced by the socialist school system, so who wants to listen to me? 😀

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