Quebec’s new ethics and religion curriculum stirs controversy

MONTREAL, QC—Debate about the role of religion in Quebec's schools centres around a new compulsory ethics and religion course slated for elementary and high school students in the fall of 2008.

In the past, Quebec parents have had trouble accepting an altered education landscape. After Roman Catholic and Protestant school boards were dismantled and re-organized along linguistic lines, religious education was gradually phased out.

Some are up in arms over the government's new "imposition"—a curriculum focusing on neutral ethical principles and overviews of the world's major religions. The courses include fringe groups like the Quebecois Raeliens and their UFO-based theology.

Jacques Chagnon, Liberal MP for the Montreal riding of Westmount-NDG and former director of the Quebec schoolboards association, says the decisions were made after considerable input and was not simply a plot to promote atheism. "One of the core values of a democratic society is an openness to the needs of its minorities. When the Jewish population asked for confessional schools funded in the same way as Catholic, Protestant and Greek Orthodox schools, we began to give serious consideration to what we believed to be a reasonable request. However, the public uproar against the proposed measure suggested that the time had indeed come to remove religion from the public school context and to return it to our homes and places of worship where it belongs."

The Quebec council of bishops had in effect accepted the new plan, promoting new approaches of catechism at the parish level. However, Cardinal Marc Ouellet issued a statement March 13 asking to re-examine and derail the new curriculum. The following day, the council of bishops confirmed that religious education is best done at home and at church.

Most politicians steered clear from the issue in the run-up to provincial elections, March 26. To address the silence, the Protestant Concertation Group on Education organized a public forum March 20. Only two political parties showed up.

At the forum, Jean Morse-Chevrier, the president of the Association of Catholic Parents in Quebec, noted that "the articles in the Canadian charter of human rights and the constitution that guaranteed the right to Protestant and Catholic confessional school boards—and by extension Protestant and Catholic schools and programs—were abolished in 1997 without public consultation."

The Liberal encumbent Chagnon, a long time participant in the provincial education portfolio, responded by pointing to the new Quebec demographic. "The provisions in the original BNA act that entrenched the rights to very specific linguisitic-confessional education were included to protect minorities in Upper and Lower Canada. Neither Catholics nor Protestants can any longer be described as endangered minorities in any sense of the word. The spirit of the original protections would now best be accorded to religious minorities other than these."

While elections have come and gone, debate simmers as both public and private schools face compulsory implementation of the new religion and ethics course.

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