Friday, 23 March 2012

Intolerance in Quebec, Part Deux.

In February of 2012, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) decided that the Province of Quebec can force all school children—whether in public, private, or home schooling—to take a course on "Ethics and Religious Culture" (ERC).

  • The SCC's decision can be read here.
  • A QB government video on the ERC course can be watched here.
  • I wrote a previous blog regarding the decision here.
Two Catholic parents in Quebec challenged the province's authority to force their children to study religion in school. Their argument was that the course implicitly taught that all religions were equally viable belief systems, and that this interfered with their religious duty to pass their faith on to their children. In the opinion of the parents, this interference violated their constitutional guarantee to freedom of religion contained in section 2(a) of the Charter.

There has been significant media interest in this case following the SCC's decision, but much of it has been flawed. The only legal analysis that can make sense of this issue is based upon individual autonomy and the constitutional right to be free from government intrusion.

One statist analysis has listed three reasons why QB should be prohibited from forcing all QB children to study the ERC course:

  1. The State has no business teaching religion;
  2. Religion is an should remain an intensely private matter; and
  3. The risk of producing ignorance would be mitigated by a program focusing primarily on ethics and tolerance without religion.
Each of these reasons is (seriously) flawed.

Regarding the first, if the author is making a descriptive argument, there is no constitutional separation of Church and State in Canada. The Queen remains both the head of State and the head of the Church of England. And it is not (yet) possible to initiate a constitutional challenge on a lack of separation between Church and State. As a result, there is currently no constitutional bar against the State teaching religion. If the author is making a normative argument, it does not map onto the issue: the ERC course is forced on all public, private, and home schools. The issue is much broader than what the QB government is permitted to teach in public schools.

Regarding the second, religion is not an intensely private matter and few religious people would agree that it should be (or remain) an intensely private matter. Since it is not a private matter, what would the State need to do to make it one? It would have to use coercive force to silence and marginalize religious folks. That would amount to tyranny and would undermine individual freedom.

Regarding the third, the State has no legitimate role in changing the minds of religious people. "Mitigating ignorance" is a recipe for disaster. The State would have to decide who is ignorant and on what grounds. It would then have to choose the means for alleviating that ignorance. Finally, it would have to take active steps to compel people to change their minds. Again, this would amount to tyranny and would undermine individual freedom.

I recently wrote an Op-Ed on this case. It can be read here. My analysis is not statist. It focuses on individual liberty and the right of all Canadians to live free from state interference. In my opinion, this is the only way to make sense of what is so wrong with the ERC course.

This appeared in the Canadian Constitution Foundation's blog in February 2012.  

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