Quebec parents appeal to courts

GRANBY, QC—Parents who object to the controversial new religion and ethics course—now mandatory in all Quebec schools—are watching to see what the courts will decide in the cases of two families who have appealed for exemptions.

Quebec education department spokesperson Stéphanie Tremblay told the National Post in December that school boards across the province had already heard and rejected more than 1,400 requests for exemptions.

The religion and ethics course was introduced at all grade levels in Quebec schools last September with the intention of fostering greater openness in children to those of other faiths and cultures by introducing them to the basic tenets of the world's great religions.

But some Christians object to the overall tone of the curriculum that suggests spiritual truth is relative and that the claims of each religion cannot be debated or evaluated.

Some parents were also upset to find their children at home performing Islamic prayers and other religious practices introduced in class.

Diane Gagné and her 16-year-old son Jonathan, both evangelical believers from Granby (an hour southeast of Montreal) became the cause célèbre after Jonathan chose to sit out of the religion classes at J.H. Leclerc High School. For missing class without official exemption, the school issued a series of one-day suspensions. An accumulation of suspensions would normally lead to expulsion.

The Gagnés retained a lawyer and asked for an exemption from the Quebec Superior Court, who will rule on the case later this summer. In the meantime Jonathan was granted a temporary reprieve, safeguarding him from expulsion while the case proceeds.

The English schoolboard in the area has taken a less dramatic approach. At Parkview Elementary School in Granby, the children of Pentecostal minister Brent Robillard were not given exemptions, but have been permitted to miss the class without penalty.

"We tried writing letters—as did many others—but were refused exemptions," says Robillard. "My kids simply get a 'O' for the course. We must show up at the school to pick up our child as the class starts and then bring them back as the class ends."

In a separate case, a family from Drummondville asked Jean-Yves Côté, the lawyer representing the Gagné family, to defend their case for exemption before the Quebec Superior Court in Drummondville.

Côté filed a petition asking to be permitted to present testimony from the Granby case in order to get a ruling with wider application. He was refused, and the ruling expected May 11 will technically concern only the Drummondville case.

"It's clear, however, that the ramifications could well be further reaching," says Jean Morse-Chevrier, president of the Quebec Association of Catholic Parents. "In a best case scenario, any exemption granted by this court would apply only to these students at this school, but the refusal to grant this exemption could become the basis on which future exemptions are denied by other courts."

Several groups with vested interest in the outcome of the case have organized shows of support for the families involved. The Association of Christian Parent Educators of Quebec organized a rally for homeschooling families last month in Drummondville.

The group says Quebec has modified a provincial charter of rights article so that the province now has "the authority to impose the…course in schools 'in the best interests of the children.'" Homeschooling families wonder if they will be required to teach the new curriculum as well.

A few faith-based schools, including Loyola High School and Emmanuel Christian School, have appealed to the courts for exemptions from offering the course. A ruling is expected in June.

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