In a landmark decision which could have repercussions throughout the English-speaking world, the highest court in Canada has overturned a law imposed by the aggressively secular provincial government of Quebec to force religious schools to teach ethics and morality from a secular perspective.
Canada's Supreme Court unanimously reined in Quebec's effort to take religion out of its schools, but the judges were divided 4-3 on how to enforce its decision. The majority referred the matter back to the Quebec government, to reconsider its decision in light of the court's judgment..
The court ruled that the province infringed on religious freedoms when it refused to allow Loyola College in Montreal to teach Catholicism from its own faith-based perspective.
The school was supported by other churches and faiths, including Canadian Council of Christian Charities, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, the Christian Legal Fellowship, Coptic Christians, the World Sikh Organisation of Canada, the Association of Christian Educators and Schools Canada, and the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
The case is a landmark case in defence of religious freedom.
To Quebec, its 2008 Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) program was the culmination of a long-standing drive to remove religion from its schools, even religious schools. At issue was whether the Quebec decision contradicted the federal Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms which purported to protect the human rights and freedoms of all Canadians.
The Supreme Court called Quebec's decision unreasonable, and sided with Loyola.
"A secular state respects religious differences; it does not seek to extinguish them," the court said.
Writing for the majority, Justice Rosalie Abella said that "preventing Loyola from teaching Catholicism seriously impairs its Catholic identity.
"Although the state's purpose is secular, this amounts to requiring a Catholic institution to speak about its own religion in terms defined by the state rather than by its own understanding," she wrote.
Telling Loyola how to explain Catholicism to its students "seriously interferes with freedom of religion.
"To ask a religious school's teachers to discuss other religions and their ethical beliefs as objectively as possible does not seriously harm the values underlying religious freedom," Justice Abella wrote.
At the same time, the highest court said Loyola must teach other religions in a neutral and respectful way, something the school says it already does in a course that covers Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and North American native spirituality.
The court said, "In the Quebec context, where private denominational schools are authorised, forcing a religious school to teach its own religion from a non-religious perspective does not assist in realising the program's basic curricular goals of encouraging among students respect for others and openness to others.
"The Minister's decision suggests that engagement with an individual's own religion on his or her own terms can simply be presumed to impair respect for others.
"This assumption runs counter to the objectives of the regulatory scheme as a whole and it has a disproportionate impact on the values underlying religious freedom in this context. This necessarily renders the Minister's decision unreasonable."
It added, "The disproportionate nature of this decision is reinforced by the fact that the Minister's decision effectively prohibits Loyola from teaching about Catholic ethics from a Catholic perspective.
"Catholic doctrine and Catholic ethics are simply too intertwined to make it possible to teach one from a religious perspective and the other neutrally.
"More to the point, there is no reason to distinguish between the two when it comes to religious freedom.
"In both cases, preventing Loyola from teaching Catholicism seriously impairs its Catholic identity," the court held.
"Everything we argued and asked for was ratified by the judges," said former principal Paul Donovan, who led the seven-year legal battle. "To get people to work together and tolerate each other, you don't have to set aside your faith and religious beliefs. It can flow from them."
The immediate implication of the decision applies to religious schools. But the underlying principle applies to other bodies run by churches, including hospitals, hospices and medical clinics, adoption agencies, immigration programs and the like.
More broadly, the Canadian court judgment upholds the individual's right to freedom of expression, and limits the powers of the state to over-ride them.
In its judgment, the Supreme Court said, "Freedom of religion means that no one can be forced to adhere to or refrain from a particular set of religious beliefs. This includes both the individual and collective aspects of religious belief.
"Religious freedom under the Charter must therefore account for the socially embedded nature of religious belief, and the deep linkages between this belief and its manifestation through communal institutions and traditions.
"The context in this case is state regulation of religious schools. This raises the question of how to balance robust protection for the values underlying religious freedom with the values of a secular state.
"The state has a legitimate interest in ensuring that students in all schools are capable, as adults, of conducting themselves with openness and respect as they confront cultural and religious differences.
"A vibrant, multicultural democracy depends on the capacity of its citizens to engage in thoughtful and inclusive forms of deliberation.
"But a secular state does not - and cannot - interfere with the beliefs or practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests.
"Nor can a secular state support or prefer the practices of one group over another. The pursuit of secular values means respecting the right to hold and manifest different religious beliefs.
"A secular state respects religious differences, it does not seek to extinguish them."