03/24/2015 01:23 EDT | Updated 05/24/2015 05:59 EDT

Should Freedom of Religion Trump the Charter's Equality Rights?

Christian, Catholic, Chapel, Prayer Service
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Christian, Catholic, Chapel, Prayer Service

Quebec requires all high schools to teach a course on Ethics and Religious Culture in order to attain two key learning objectives: the recognition of others and the pursuit of the common good. The Supreme Court of Canada has held that the Quebec government is infringing on the religious freedom of Loyola High School to require it to teach the Christianity portion of this course from a neutral, rather than a Christian, perspective.

Loyola High School is a Jesuit school and argued that being required to take a neutral and non-confessional approach to teaching Roman Catholic doctrines was an infringement of its religious freedom. What parent would go to the expense of educating their child in a private Roman Catholic school and then have them exposed to the State's view on equality for homosexuals in marriage or discrimination on the basis of sex?

The Supreme Court of Canada recognized that, in requiring the Ethics and Religious Culture course, Quebec sought to promote the shared values of equality, human rights and democracy that the state has a legitimate interest in promoting and protecting. The Court held: "Religious freedom must therefore be understood in the context of a secular, multicultural and democratic society with a strong interest in protecting dignity and diversity, promoting equality, and ensuring the vitality of a common belief in human rights."

In coming to its decision, the Court cited Article 18(4) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which protects the rights of parents to guide their children's religious upbringing.

However, when Canada became a signatory to Article 18(4) of this International Covenant, it also became a signatory to Article 12. Article 12 states that "Men and women of marriageable age have the right to marry and to found a family, according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right." Canada's laws governing marriage do not conform to Jesuit theology on same sex marriage.

I come from deeply conservative Christian roots and receive emails from siblings exhorting me to join God's battle against gay rights, especially the right to marry. My last conversation with a sibling on this issue ended with the pronouncement "human rights are not biblical." In my family, those five words succinctly trump any legal erudition or argument.

Many in my family will be praising the Lord that the Supreme Court of Canada has "finally come to a correct decision" on a religion and cultural issue. Instead of citing human rights law, they would prefer the Court to have cited the Biblical command in Leviticus 18:22: "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination."

I was taught from the earliest age in a private Christian school. My parents would welcome the Court's ruling that their individual freedom of religion extends to the corporate religious schools through which they transmitted their faith to me. However, as a parent, I have been careful to teach my children perspectives that go beyond the biblical view expressed in Leviticus.

My views on this human rights issue are influenced by the equality provisions in the Charter as well as by scripture. My pathway to this position has not been without social pain and personal doubt. My life was simpler and my church friends were happier with me when I had the absolute certitude of being theologically correct and was not influenced by human rights concerns on issues such as same sex marriage.

The minority judgment stated: "It is inconceivable that a Catholic teacher could sincerely express a neutral viewpoint on this subject [premarital sex] -- nor, in our view, should not he or she be required to do so." In my opinion, it is even more inconceivable that a Catholic teacher could sincerely express a neutral viewpoint on same sex marriage. However, I can understand why the Quebec government thinks that the shared values of equality and human rights would require students at Loyola to be exposed to a neutral viewpoint.

The Supreme Court of Canada has effectively held that the Charter's fundamental freedom of religion provision trumps the Charter's equality rights. My religious training in the Bible goes deep enough to cause me to share some of the elation of Christian fundamentalists. However, I worry that my legal training in human rights might not go deep enough to cause me to exclude any personal prejudice and discrimination based upon religion when this same freedom of religion is extended to fundamentalist Muslims transmitting their faith to their children in their religious schools.


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