In 2008, two concerned Catholic parents requested that their children be exempted from Quebec’s Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) course – the Quebec government requires that all children in public, private, and home schooling take the course- because they felt it interfered with their ability to pass their faith on to their children.
The parents’ request was denied, so they took the matter to court arguing their right to freedom of religion was being violated.
On February 17th, the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) decided that the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of religion does not prevent the Quebec government from forcing children to take the ERC course. This result was easily foreseeable. For the challenge to have succeeded, the parents needed to prove that the ERC course interfered with their ability to pass their faith to their children – something the parents consider a religious duty.
The SCC’s decision did not answer whether the ERC course might violate the freedom of religion of children or teachers, and it did not inquire whether other Charter rights might be violated. The only question addressed was whether the freedom of religion of the parents was violated. This is a significant short-coming.
SECURITY OF THE PERSON
The SCC has long held that the Charter guarantee of what is called “security of the person” encompasses personal autonomy – the right to control one’s physical and psychological integrity free from state interference. For example, this right is relevant when a parent risks having their child apprehended by child welfare authorities. And it should be relevant when a parent is compelled to educate a child in a manner contrary to his or her religious beliefs.
Imagine that you are a parent who has decided your child should get a private religious education. Even though private school can be expensive, your religious values are of fundamental personal importance, so you decide the expense is worth it. How would you react if the government forced your child to learn precisely that content which you were seeking to avoid by taking your child out of the public school system?
A similar argument can be made on behalf of irreligious parents. If your conscience compels you to shield your child from religious education, should the government be able to completely disregard your wishes?
John Stuart Mill in his famous work “On Liberty” warned that state education can be a contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another in a manner that pleases the predominant power in government. This moulding, if successful, establishes despotism over the mind of pupils. Quebec’s stated goal for the ERC course is to develop a society in which different religious values and beliefs can coexist. The chosen means of accomplishing this is to teach children that all religions are equally viable alternatives. And this is to mould students to accept a proposition explicitly rejected by many parents.
Displacing individual rights to achieve a state goal is hardly laudable. In fact, it’s the blueprint for the most atrocious violations of human rights. If parents can’t be trusted to make the right decision for their children, why can legislators be trusted?
These legislators have assumed that they are the elites who know what’s best. Their elitist attitude enables them to subjugate the wishes of individual parents and prioritize what they perceive as the interests of society. There are few more obvious examples of significant state interference with the psychological integrity of parents than the ERC course. Wasn’t the Charter adopted, in part, to prevent the majority from bullying and oppressing minorities through government power?
Education can be the perfect vehicle for an authoritarian state to indoctrinate its youth, and Quebec’s ERC course is precisely what Mill warned about. Quebec’s goals may seem innocuous to most of us, but the principle behind it is unsettling – the government knows best and has licence to mould upcoming generations into compliance. Compelling parents to do to their children that which they deeply oppose is immoral, even if other people perceive the state’s goals as wise and right. Parents should be the final arbiters of their children’s education.
This piece originally appeared in Troy Media in February of 2012.