Supreme Court of Canada Rules on Parental Authority, Religious Freedom
February 17, 2012
OTTAWA – This morning the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in a case in which the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) intervened. S.L., et al. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes, et al., a case originating in Quebec, sought to address the issue of whether parents have the right to choose the kind of education their children will receive, particularly in regard to religious instruction. The EFC presented written and verbal arguments at the May 18, 2011 hearing.
“We are disappointed with the decision,” states Don Hutchinson, EFC Vice-President and General Legal Counsel. “Historically, Canadian parents have had the right, affirmed by the courts, to teach morality and religion to their children from their perspective, or decide who will do so on their behalf, without government interference. The Supreme Court of Canada said nothing on those points in this decision. Rather, the Court hung their legal hat on a technicality, basically saying they were not making a decision on the issues at the heart of this case because the case was started before there was objective evidence of harm to children, parental rights or religious beliefs resulting from the Quebec curriculum as the ERC was not yet operative.”
“Essentially, it’s a technical decision based on the lack of evidence of harm in the record when the decision was made at the trial level, the first level of hearing at the Quebec Superior Court. Parents and other Canadians should see this for what it is, a non-decision on parental rights and religious freedom in which the Court has simply clarified the process for bringing and evaluating a complaint of a rights violation before the courts.”
At issue was the Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program, a mandatory course to be taught to all québécois children, from grade 1 to grade 11, whether they attend public or private schools, or are homeschooled. The course, which states its objective as the instruction of children in a manner that will promote tolerance and respect, thus equipping them to live a pluralist society, has proven to be polarizing and controversial. Its mandate, while on first appearance seeming at home in Canada’s multicultural society, actually challenges the rights and values of parents and their religious beliefs. Parents who felt that the program conflicted with their religious beliefs had their requests that their children be exempted from the program categorically denied, following which they started legal action in the courts.
“Regardless of the significant information introduced to the contrary, the Court stated that the parents had not objectively proven that the ERC program or the government’s refusal to permit exemptions from the course had violated their religious beliefs prior to the court action commencing,” states EFC Legal Counsel, Faye Sonier. “Justice LeBel noted, it’s ‘hard to tell what the emphasis the program will place on Quebec’s religious heritage and on the cultural and historical importance of Catholicism and Protestantism in that province will mean.’ He also pointed out that the ‘Court’s decisions have stressed the importance of neutrality in the public school system.’”
Sonier continued, “The Court has left the door open to a similar case returning to the court if an objective infringement of rights can be demonstrated, rather than a parental concern about infringement. What is troubling about the decision is that the Court could have dealt with the issue instead of setting it up for the potential to return in the four to seven years a similar fact situation will take to get through the court system again after somebody has the objective evidence of their rights being violated by the program.”
“Provinces across Canada permit classroom exemptions, either in regulation or practice, or other forms of accommodation. Further, the province of Quebec did not demonstrate why this course is mandatory to ensure a peaceful and tolerant society. At least the Supreme Court has sounded a warning to the provincial ministries of education to be reasonable or risk ending up before the Court with the potential for a decision that favours parental rights. It appears that the judges are hoping that the parents and politicians will work out a solution that keeps this situation from re-entering the court system,” explains Hutchinson.
For more information on the case, check out www.theEFC.ca/sl. For information on religious freedom in the education setting and parental rights, please visit www.theEFC.ca/education.
For more information or an interview contact:
Rick Hiemstra, Director of Media Relations
The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada
(613) 233-9868, ext. 332