31 Oct 2010

Battle over ethics course in Quebec schools goes to court - Catholic high school wants exemption

The Montreal Gazette - June 6, 2009

Loyola vs. Quebec government; High school wants exemption, saying class promotes 'normative pluralism'


With all the time and effort going into the legal fight against Quebec's new ethics-and-religion curriculum, Loyola High School principal Paul Donovan kind of wishes his school had just gone ahead and taught the course the way it saw fit - by promoting Catholicism and talking about God.

But that wouldn't have been honest, he said.

Instead, a showdown is set to begin Monday in Quebec Superior Court between the 160-year-old private Catholic boys' school and the provincial government that will once again examine the thorny issue of the place of religious education in schools.

The school wants an exemption from the course, saying it promotes "normative pluralism" that "trivializes and negates religious belief and experience." Quebec has already refused an exemption and an offer of an equivalent course, saying religion and ethics can't be taught from a Catholic perspective.

"You're being told that you have to teach it in a particular way, and that particular way is essentially secular," Donovan said.

"In other words, the school or the teachers cannot bring in any kind of values of their own into the way you discuss the issues that are in there.

"For us to be told that we can't bring those values into a course that is on ethics and religious culture doesn't make any sense."

Michael Schleifer, education professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal, and co-editor of Science, Religion and Education, due out in English this summer, said there is nothing that precludes a teacher from giving his or her point of view.

"But there's a difference between education and indoctrination," he said. "If a teacher were to say, 'Here are all the views and here's the Catholic view and it's the right one,' that's the rub."

Loyola has 720 students. Donovan said the parents of 630 of them requested the course not be taught to their children. He said 90 per cent of students at Loyola are Catholic and only five students are non-Christians.

According to the Education Department, the course, introduced last fall in all secondary school grades except 9 and 11, will teach students about Catholicism and Protestantism in Quebec culture, the contributions of Judaism and native spiritualities, as well as elements of other religious traditions that have recently appeared in Quebec society.

The course has two main objectives: the recognition of others and the pursuit of the common good. Another goal, the provincial government says, is to help promote harmonious social relations in Quebec society.

A legal challenge to the course was already heard in Quebec Superior Court last month in Drummondville, where several students are boycotting the class.

People who helped develop the curriculum, like Daniel Weinstock, philosophy professor at the Univeristé de Montréal, argue the role of schools should be to give "an even-handed representation of all religions," while leaving it up to the parents to turn their children into believers, if they want, through churches, mosques and temples.

"If I were arguing this for the defence, I would just point to what seems to be hugely obvious, which is a child who comes out of an education system without an understanding of the religions that surround them, including the religion of the majority ... has been done an identifiable and measurable harm," he said.

Weinstock said the aim of the course is to give students a taste of what it's like to be a Jew, a Muslim or a Christian, by studying each religion's rituals and not pushing any one of them over another.

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