On Thursday March 19, 2015, the Supreme Court of Canada released it’s ruling on the six year pending case of Loyola High School v. Quebec. Loyola High School, a private Catholic school, sought an exemption for the teaching of the mandatory religious education program called the Ethics and Religious Culture Program (ERC), introduced as a compulsory subject in all private and public schools in Quebec in 2008. The ERC was markedly different from previous religious instruction in Quebec, most notably through its cultural approach to the study of religions and the neutral stance it required of teachers of the ERC.
Loyola asked for an exemption from the ERC in favor of its own program. The motion was denied based on the grounds that the program offered by Loyola was not equivalent to the ERC because it was “faith- based as opposed to cultural in its approach” (Québec Procureur general c. Loyola High School, 2012 QCCA 2139). After a six-year battle over the right to teach their own religious education program in Loyola High School, the Court accepted Loyola’s alternative program with these conditions:
(1) Loyola will teach Catholicism from the Catholic perspective, but will teach other religions objectively and respectfully;
(2) Loyola will emphasize the Catholic point of view on ethical questions, but will ensure all ethical points are presented on any given issue; and;
(3) Loyola will encourage students to think critically and engage with their teachers and with each other in exploring the topics covered in the program. Loyola’s proposal departs from the generic ERC Program in two key respects. When teaching both Catholicism and ethics, Loyola’s teachers would depart from the strict neutrality that the ERC Program requires. (Supreme Court ruling p.12).
This decision raises more questions than answers. To begin, what is “strict” neutrality? Paul Donovan, former Loyola principal, stated that the case was a “matter of principle” and that “the idea of saying that you cannot be Catholic for whatever period of time during the day [when you’re teaching the ERC course], that’s where the problem was” (Donovan, as cited in the Montreal Gazette, March 19, 2015). The Supreme Court ruled that in their view “there is nothing inherent in the ERC program’s objectives … or competencies … that requires a cultural and non-denominational approach” (as cited in Gazette) and that Loyola teachers cannot be forced to adopt a neutral position.
What this case reveals is uneasiness with the de-confessionalized pedagogical approach of the ERC. Here the problem lies not with the ERC as a mandated program in itself but rather with its approach to teaching religion. The issue with the a”strict” neutrality as part of an ERC teacher’s professional stance is that it’s difficult when put into practice. Thus private denominational schools such as Loyola are caught in a position where not teaching the ERC would result in legal action and teaching it in the way the Ministry of Education outlines would be a departure from the School’s mandate to provide a normative religious education for the students at the school. Yet, the stance of neutrality is difficult to maintain in secular institutions as well. Kimberly White (2009) finds in her research on religion and teacher identity that religion is an integral part of the lived and social experiences of many teachers, and that within cultural and institutional contexts people have difficulty keeping their religious identities private. In fact, due to the pressure Christian teachers faced to conceal their faith in school, they resorted to what Franklin (2010) terms “veiling” which is defined as the concealment of a teacher’s faith and religious beliefs entirely and avoiding any conversations about religion so as to not be accused of indoctrinating or “preaching.”
While teachers understand the consequences of teaching in a secular institution and agree to it’s terms, the practicality of neutrality in pedagogy or professional stance is difficult to attain. For one, pedagogies are not neutral (Farrow, 2009) as the pedagogical approach, the resources chosen (or excluded) and even a teacher’s body language can convey certain worldviews and values. So, it light of this case, further discussion around the practicality and feasibility of neutrality in professional conduct is one we need to explore amongst all teachers of ERC both in secular and non- secular institutions.
Farrow, D. (speaker) (2009). Ethics and religious culture: Why all the fuss? [Public lecture, McGill University, 2009, October 28]. (Podcast available at http://www.republiquedebananes.com/en-manchette/ethics-and-religious-culture- why-the-fuss.html)
Franklin, K. P. (2010). The dialogical relationship between spiritual and professional identity in beginning teachers: context, choices and consequences. Doctoral dissertation, Faculty of Education-Simon Fraser University.
White, K. R. (2009). Connecting religion and teacher identity: The unexplored relationship between teachers and religion in public schools. Teaching and Teacher Education, 25(6), 857-866.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.