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Fight for freedom goes beyond the courtroom

Quebec’s Loyola case could be landmark for religious rights

Many of us naturally think a loss of freedom occurs when something is taken away. In fact, that’s the final step in the process of loss. The first step comes when hesitancy becomes our conditioned response.

Prudence is the door to wisdom. But hesitancy is the gate that swings open to fear, and there can never be freedom in the country of fear.

Standing with others against insinuation of that hesitancy, and that fear, in the hearts of Canadians of religious faith is what drives Cardus daily. It is what led us to stand with little Loyola High School in Montreal as it took its case all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada on March 24 this year.

When we were first drawn to the case, not as activists but as a think tank able to provide intellectual and communications support, people frequently asked why an Ontario organization drawn from the Protestant tradition would concern itself with the fate of a private Catholic school in Quebec. Full disclosure: we asked it of ourselves.

The answer, internally and externally, is the one I gave the National Post on the eve of the Loyola hearing. What is at stake in Loyola versus the government of Quebec is the risk of creating conditioned hesitancy among religious institutions in Canada.

By way of quick background, after dismantling its historic confessional school system, the government of Quebec mandated a program called Ethics and Religious Culture in 2008. Some parents objected to the curriculum itself that was imposed on all students—public, private, and home schooled. Ultimately, the Supreme Court rejected their argument that the content itself represented a violation of religious freedom.

Loyola agreed from the start to teach ERC but wanted to adapt a section of it on Catholicism to reflect its Jesuit pedagogy. The Quebec government denied its request. A Superior Court judge found that government refusal “totalitarian” in nature. The Quebec Court of Appeal overturned his decision. We should know by November where the Supreme Court of Canada stands.

Canadians who care at all about Charter guarantees of religious freedom must, Cardus believes, must hope and pray that our country’s highest court finds the Quebec government’s refusal to let a Christian institution teach Christian faith from a Christian perspective an unacceptable violation of fundamental religious freedom.

If it does not, then we are opening the gates of hesitancy beyond which stretches the landscape of fear.

All Canadians of religious faith—Catholic, Protestant, Anabaptist, Sikh, Muslim, Jew and so on—would thereafter feel compelled to look over their shoulders and wonder when the State will elect to intervene in their religious lives, and how. As Paul Donovan, the principal of Loyola has put it eloquently, they will be obliged to ask what percentage of their religious identity the State will leave them free to live.

That moment of hesitancy will be the instant of loss. It will not be necessary for the State to go further and nail shut the doors of churches, synagogues, temples or mosques. It will not be necessary for the State to take away external signs of religious freedom. We will have lost freedom in our hearts.

Cardus is committed by its very origins to renewing North America’s social architecture. Given that mission, we will never stand at the gates and look hesitantly, fearfully, through the bars.

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About the author

Special to ChristianWeek

Michael Van Pelt is president of Cardus, a think tank devoted to renewal of North American social architecture.