Canada high court dismisses appeal on student exemption from religious course

[JURIST] The Canada Supreme Court [official website] on Friday dismissed an appeal [opinion] from Catholic parents who hoped to exempt their children from attending religious courses as part of a mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture Program (ERCP) [official profile] in Quebec. The parents argued that the courses would teach their children things contrary to their own religious values, and had previously challenged the requirement through their school board, which denied their requests. They asked the court to declare that the program was an infringement on their children's constitutional rights to religion and to review the school board's decision to not exempt them from the courses. In the court's dismissal, Justice Marie Deschamps stated:

Although the sincerity of a person's belief that a religious practice must be observed is relevant to whether the person's right to freedom of religion is at issue, an infringement of this right cannot be established without objective proof of an interference with the observance of that practice. In this case, given the trial judge's findings of fact and the evidence in the record concerning the neutrality of the ERC Program, I conclude that the appellants have failed to prove such an interference.
Deschamps also wrote that "early exposure of children to realities that differ from those in their immediate family environment is a fact of life in society," and that exposure "does not in itself constitute an infringement."

The Ethics and Religious Culture Program was created in 2008 as a replacement for the Moral Education, Catholic Religious and Moral Instruction, and Protestant Moral Education and Religious Education courses that existed at the time. Denis Watters, head of the ERCP at the Quebec Ministry of Education, Leisure and Sport [official website], said the ERCP is designed "to equip [students] with knowledge that will help them decode the meanings of the various religious expressions around them," not to push any of the religions on students. There are often instances of tension between religious freedom and educational requirements in other countries as well. In 2009, Germany's high court rejected a religious challenge against required sexual education classes. In 2008, a US federal court ruled that Pennsylvania educational requirements did not violate [JURIST reports] religious rights of children who are home schooled.

 

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