Canadian Remedy for American Taliban

A few years ago, Quebec introduced a very interesting religious education program for public school.  The Province’s Ethics and Religious Culture (“ERC”) Program, which went into effect in 2008, requires that children learn facts about the many different religions practiced in the Canada.  The intent and the content of the ERC program was to maintain neutrality between faiths, and to help children understand the beliefs of others in the Province.

Two parents of school children sought to have their children removed from the education program on the ground that their children’s “freedom of religion” was infringed by their having to learn facts about other religions.  The challenge might seem peculiar because nothing in the ERC Program kept the children from practicing their own faith, or the faith of their parents thrust upon them; nor did the Program require them to practice any faith, or cult for that matter.

The briefs of the parents and of organized churches, however, made clear what the gravaman of the complaint was.  Being required to learn about other faiths (and cults) would undermine the parents’ claims that their faith was the “one true faith,” and would lead to the children’s rejection of their parents’ faith.  The school system, by opening children’s eyes to the existence of many different faiths, making competing claims to truth and understanding, would interfere with the parents’ “obligation” to indoctrinate the Catholic faith in their children by causing their children to question their faith.  Maybe more to the point, but unstated, the education program would not just cause children to question their faith, but rather it would allow the children to see that the existence of competing faiths undermined any claim to Truth in one.  All the faiths might take on an arbitrary and capricious appearance.

Now if the parents believed that their Catholic faith was somehow privileged and True, it would have been a relatively simple matter to teach their children the how and why of their own religious beliefs.  We would think that the children would be inoculated against the heretical views of the diverse religions practiced in Canada.  Perhaps the parents’ anxiety, and their resort to pleadings, reveals some insecurity about their faith’s ability to withstand critical scrutiny.  Better to put off the day of reckoning until the brainwashing of the children is complete.

On February 17, 2012 the Supreme Court of Canada upheld Quebec’s Ethics & Religious Culture Program, in S.L. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes, 2012 SCC 7.  The Court held that the parents, whose names are not revealed (due to shame?), and their children suffered no infringement of their freedom of religion.  Accepting that the parents were sincere in their professions of faith, the Court unanimously held that the ERC Program did not interfere with those beliefs.  Parents in Canada remain free to do their best to indoctrinate their children in parental religious beliefs, whether those beliefs be Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Jewish, Jain, Scientology, Satanic, Astrological, or even Pastafarian.

Merely causing children to open their eyes and compare religions in a factual way is not an infringement of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Learning about the diversity of faiths is not a restraint of the free exercise of religion.  The Supreme Court of Canada noted that the ERC Program maintained neutrality in presenting facts about religion and morals.

Refusing to accept that the ERC Program interfered with parental “obligations” to inculcate and indoctrinate their own faith was perhaps non-empirical.  The parents’ claim is not implausible, and it might well be true.  The Court’s holding ignored that neutrality was the LAST thing the litigious parents wanted in matters of religion.  The parents, S.L. and D.J., took their anonymous children out of public school, and placed them in Catholic schools, where they can have their children indoctrinated without scrutiny or appeal to law or reason.

Indeed, let’s hope that it is true that teaching facts about competing faiths, which cannot all be equally correct, might lead to some epistemic humility and even skepticism.  Surely that would be welcomed. We have something here to learn from our northern neighbor.  Teaching “anthropology of religion” in the United States might have great benefits to break the stranglehold of cults on our politics.  The Quebec ERC Program would be a step in moving from a faith-based to an evidence-based world.  American Taliban beware.

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