lundi 14 septembre 2009

God and government

Article from the National Post published this Monday 14th of September 2009.

What could possibly be wrong with children gaining a general knowledge of the world's major religions and the differences among them?

Plenty, if the government requires that children be taught that all religions, and all non-religious moral codes, have equal merit.

In a recent troubling judgment (Lavallee vs. Commission scolaire des Chenes), Quebec's Superior Court ruled that parents do not have ultimate authority over the moral or religious education of their children, and that the state can impose a curriculum that conflicts with the moral codes parents strive to instill. The court rejected a claim brought by parents seeking to exempt their children from the "Ethics and Religious Culture" (ERC) course, which in 2008 became mandatory for all students from Grade 1 to Grade 11, including students in private religious schools.

Some have lauded the court ruling as a rejection of the right to raise children in ignorance. But the parents involved are not against educating their children about other faiths and belief systems. Rather, they wish to do it from their own perspectives.

Parents do not wish to have to instruct their children — stealthily, at home — that the moral relativism they are being taught at school is wrong. They do not wish to have to undermine their children's confidence in their schoolteachers. Nor do they wish to become hypocrites, adhering to a particular moral code themselves, but pretending — in order to spare their children the conflict of having to choose between home and school — that it's okay for their children to accept tenets they consider immoral.

This concern resonates with people of all religions and moral codes. While the parents who brought the court action happen to be Catholic, the secular and humanist Mouvement laique quebecois also opposes the ERC course being mandatory for all children. Agnostic and atheist parents don't want their children forcibly exposed to religion at a young age.

If Quebec's goal were merely to save children from religious and cultural ignorance, it would tolerate a diversity of methods for achieving that goal. But no such tolerance has been extended to Loyola High School, a private Catholic school in Montreal. Its curriculum already included information about the world's other major religions, but in keeping with its mission and values, Loyola teaches its students that Roman Catholicism is actually true and ought to be adhered to. Quebec says such instruction is unacceptable because it is not "even-handed."

Since virtually every religion and moral code includes as one of its tenets a belief in its superiority over rival systems (or else why adhere to it?), Quebec's insistence on even-handedness is tantamount to compelling every teacher of religion or morality to deny or contradict some part of his creed. Why should teachers be forced into such hypocrisy in a country whose constitution — in Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — guarantees freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion and expression? The province maintains, and the court accepted, that parents' constitutional freedoms remain intact since they are still free to instruct their children in their own moral codes in the privacy of home. But even homeschoolers, who frequently opt out of government schooling precisely because they prefer to instruct their children in their own belief systems, will be required to teach the "even-handed" ERC course or an equivalent course. Imagine parents instructing their children about the importance of adhering to their own religious beliefs in the morning, then telling them that there are a dozen other religions to choose from, all equally valid, in the afternoon. It's ludicrous for the province to argue that such a process respects freedom of belief.

The "government-knows-best" attitude that Quebec is displaying has been in existence as long as compulsory public education itself. Nineteenth century Prussia was the first to impose a mandatory curriculum to teach all children from ages five to 13 discipline, respect for authority and the ability to follow orders. Prussia sought to produce obedient citizens who would understand that the King is always just, and his decisions are always right. As the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte explained: "The schools must fashion the person, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will."

Freedom of religion and conscience, parental authority, and family autonomy are bulwarks which protect all citizens from government coercion and intrusion. We dismantle these bulwarks at our peril.

-John Carpay and Karen Selick are executive director and litigation director, respectively, of the Canadian Constitution Foundation, which is assisting the Quebec parents with their constitutional court challenge.

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