Updated: The Supreme Court ruled against the family in S.L. et al. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes et al.
This Friday the Supreme Court of Canada is expected to rule on what could be a landmark case on the role of parental rights and religious accommodation in public education.
The case, S.L. et al. v. Commission scolaire des Chênes et al., was brought by parents who were unable to receive an exemption for their children from Quebec’s mandatory, and controversial, Ethics and Religious Culture courses. The parents in question allege that by denying them the right to remove their children from the religion course, the government is violating their right to freedom of conscience and religion, as they would prefer to impart religious instruction to their children themselves.
The question of religious accommodation in general is one that is making bigger and bigger headlines across the globe as schools adapt to a population that is much less homogenous than in earlier years. A few examples include: questions about whether Sikh children can carry kirpans (daggers that have religious meanings for Sikhs) in school despite the fact that having knives at school for any reason is typically severely punished; religious parents asking that their children be excluded from sex-ed or gay rights classes; girls demanding the right to wear burkas; atheists insisting that they not be exposed to any official mention of God; Christian children claiming the right to study the Bible during recess; debates about the place of evolution and intelligent design in science classes; and Muslim children asking to be excused from music and physical education classes, or give special accommodations for Friday prayers.
In conflict can be notions of parental rights, individual rights, religious rights, cultural identity, safety, Canadian values, government law, separation of church/mosque/synagogue/temple and state, and plain old-fashioned pragmatism. Is it reasonable to gender-segregate 300 six year olds playing dodge ball or duck, duck, goose because one child’s parents think it inappropriate for their first-grade son to play with girls? Is it reasonable to expect teachers or schools to navigate through the complications of 1200 children, if half of them have different exemption requests covering everything from diet to clothing, exercise, curriculum, or exercise?
Yet parents have an extremely good point. Why do state officials have the right to insist that children are taught a single state-approved perspective on so many either explicitly or tangentially religious issues? Schools insist on teaching a view of sexual morality and homosexual relationships that is at odds with the traditional values of almost every, if not every, religion in the world. Is it not reasonable for parents to object?
Yet others would disagree, and maintain that not only accepting, but celebrating, things such as homosexual and other alternative lifestyles is a non-negotiable part of what it means to be a Canadian. The Toronto District School Board maintains that; “While the Board works to create a school system free from religious discrimination, this freedom is not absolute... If a parent/guardian/ caregiver asks for his or her child to be exempt from any discussion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or same-sex-family issue, the request cannot be granted because it violates the TDSB Human Rights Policy.” Other contentious issues can centre around ideas of gender equality, tolerance, sexual safety, or in cases like evolution basic education.
While it is easy to argue both sides of this question, ultimately we need to remember that these are typically not mere matters of personal preference, but often strike at the heart of personal and family identity. Children are vulnerable, and children growing up in strongly religious or immigrant households are probably if anything more vulnerable than normal as they sense the dissonance (regardless of accommodation) between their home and school life. The last thing they assuredly need is for these two worlds to move from dissonance to outright hostility, or full-scale war.
Will banning burkas or headscarves in school as France did advance gender equality? Not likely. The more likely option is that fundamentalist parents will simply keep their daughters under permanent house arrest, unable to ever set foot outside the house. Education may or may not, under these circumstances, be much of a priority - particularly if the parents are illiterate in the majority language of the country. Even otherwise moderate families may feel under threat, and may become more radical than they otherwise would, making very sure that their children are in no danger whatsoever of being seduced by the secularism of the school.
Whether you think that an increased devotion to religion as a result of feeling under attack is a good thing or a bad thing will probably depend on your attitude towards religion in general and certain religions in particular. After all, your opinion about religious families withdrawing their children in favour of private schools or homeschooling depends on your opinion of the benefits of homogenous public education.
As a homeschool graduate I think homeschooling, for example, is a perfectly excellent and legitimate choice for parents who want to instill a particular religious perspective in their children. Regardless of accommodation, schools will only ever go so far in forwarding such a specific religious perspective. But I know others will disagree, not least those who are most anxious to limit religious accommodation in school.
Refusing to accept, and respect, religious difference and the role of parents in deciding the education and upbringing of their children is likely to increase the conflict and dissonance in the life of the child who is caught in the middle, and may backfire and encourage the very opinions it seeks to discourage (good or bad as that may be).
That doesn’t necessarily mean that parents should get a carte blanche to dictate whatever they want to schools, or demand what might amount to a custom rewrite of the curriculum or schedule. But schools should be willing to do what they can to accommodate religious students, while religious parents should realize that after a certain point they should probably consider homeschooling or private schooling. If nothing else, secularists should realize that by not giving on these religious issues they risk losing the children altogether, leaving them outside their subtle influence and control.
And yes, I realize that I just wrote an apologetic for religious parents to leave the public schools, no matter how friendly their system is. So be it.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of The Prince Arthur Herald.
Want to respond to this article? Send a letter to the Editor (firstname.lastname@example.org).