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The Supreme Court of Canada has affirmed that it was wrong for the government of Quebec to require a Catholic high school to teach parts of a curriculum on religion and ethics from a secular perspective.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada had intervened before the Court on March 24, 2014, calling for just such a decision.

Loyola High School offered no objection to the stated outcomes of the curriculum, but it wanted to be able to teach parts of the curriculum dealing with the Christian faith and ethics from a Catholic perspective. The school requested an exemption and proposed an alternative approach that met the stated outcomes, but they were refused the exemption.

The judges were unanimous in saying Loyola should have received the exemption. While four of the seven judges gave Loyola what they requested, the remaining three would have gone further and were more affirming of the right of the school to teach all aspects of the curriculum from a Catholic perspective.

While the three judges also confirmed that Loyola as a corporation enjoys religious freedom in its own right, the majority felt it was not necessary to decide whether freedom of religion extends to corporations, as they felt it was sufficient to say that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protects the religious freedom of the members of the Loyola community.

In the decision the Court commented on the scope of religious freedom within a secular state. It said secularism includes respect for religious difference and that a secular state “does not – and cannot – interfere with the beliefs and practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests.”

The majority said, “A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them” and it “affirms and recognizes the religious freedom of individuals and their communities.”

They also said it is legitimate for the state to promote and protect the shared values of equality, human rights and democracy, and therefore the state has a “legitimate interest in ensuring that students in all schools are capable, as adults, of conducting themselves with openness and respect as they confront cultural and religious differences.” They concluded Loyola’s way of teaching the curriculum would meet this objective.

There was a strong affirmation in the decision of the communal nature of religious practice. They said “Religious freedom under the Charter must therefore account for the socially embedded nature of religious belief, and the deep linkages between this belief and its manifestation through communal institutions and traditions.”

They argued that to tell a Catholic school how to teach about the Catholic faith “amounts to requiring a Catholic institution to speak about Catholicism in terms defined by the state rather than by its own understanding.”

Mandating how Loyola teaches about the Catholic faith and ethics also interferes with the right of parents. They said: “an essential ingredient of the vitality of a religious community is the ability of its members to pass on their beliefs to their children, whether through instruction in the home or participation in communal institutions.”

This is good news for parents and all faith-based schools.

In their minority decision, the remaining three judges stressed the communal nature of religion. They argued that the religious freedom of individuals requires that the religious freedom of religious organizations be protected.

They wrote that “the freedom of religion of individuals cannot flourish without freedom of religion for the organizations through which those individuals express their religious practices and through which they transmit their faith.”

Thus they concluded that the religious freedom guarantees of the Charter can protect an organization itself, if that organization is primarily constituted for religious purposes and that operates according to these purposes.

This would apply to churches and Christian ministry organizations as well as religious schools.

It is important to understand that under the Charter, no freedoms or rights are absolute. They can be limited if the Court believes doing so is justifiable in a free and democratic society. However, in this decision the Court decided that the approach Loyola would take to educating its students from a Catholic perspective would achieve the core objectives of the curriculum as established by the Quebec government – and so the failure allow it to teach from a Catholic perspective was unconstitutional.

In all, it is a good decision and a strong affirmation of religious freedom and the communal dimension of religion. Those who attend churches and participate in Christian ministry organizations will appreciate such affirmation.

(Originally published 24 March 2015 at

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