Supreme Court rules on Quebec high school religious exemptions

Today's case revolves around Quebec's law that requires the teaching of the Ethics and Religious Culture program

OTTAWA – The Supreme Court of Canada rules today on whether a private Catholic high school in Montreal can be exempted from teaching Quebec’s ethics and religious culture program.

The high court ruled on the issue in 2012 in a similar case in Drummondville, Quebec involving a public school.

In that case, the Supreme Court ruled that the rights of Catholic parents who wanted to raise their children in their faith were not infringed by teaching students about world religions.

In the narrowest legal sense, today’s ruling will affect private schools and revolves around an appeal by Jesuit-run Loyola High School, which wants to be allowed to use its own course and teach it from a Catholic perspective.

The ruling comes amid the backdrop of political, cultural and religious acrimony that has arisen in Ottawa around the issues raised by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s position that women taking the oath of citizenship should not be allowed to wear a face-covering niqab.

Today’s case revolves around Quebec’s law that requires the teaching of the Ethics and Religious Culture program.

Schools can apply for an exemption that allows an alternative course to be taught as long as it is approved by the minister of education.

The ministry initially turned down Loyola’s request for an exemption, but at trial, a judge in the Superior Court of Quebec ruled in favour of the school and granted it.

The Quebec Court of Appeal reversed that decision in December 2013.

Loyola’s application for an exemption was turned down because the province said the course must be taught from a secular, cultural and morally neutral perspective and not from a Catholic perspective.

At trial, a judge found that the education ministry’s refusal was a serious infringement of freedom of religion.

The appeal court found there was no infringement on Loyola’s ability to teach religion. It said that even if there was, the effect was trivial because the ethics course was one among many.