A Jesuit-run high school in Montreal won an eight-year legal battle against the Quebec government when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that it should be allowed to teach a mandatory ethics and religious culture course from a Catholic faith perspective.
In a 7-0 decision, the court ruled March 19 that Loyola High School can favor Catholicism in teaching the course, which is required by the Quebec Ministry of Education, Recreation and Sports.
"The minister's decision requiring that all aspects of Loyola's proposed program be taught from a neutral perspective, including the teaching of Catholicism, limited freedom of religion more than was necessary given the statutory objectives. As a result, it did not reflect a proportionate balancing and should be set aside," the court wrote in its opinion.
When teaching about other religious traditions, teachers at Loyola must remain neutral, the court said.
School officials and a parent group involved in the case welcomed the decision.
"We are extremely happy," Principal Paul Donovan said. "We see it as a common sense ruling."
Donovan noted that the court provided parameters on how the school can work with the government in a secular society.
"Is it possible to contribute to the common good as a religious institution? The ruling says it is, but there needs to be a balance between a particular identity and the common good of the entire society," he said.
Donovan added that he hoped school officials would meet with Francois Blais, Quebec education minister, to discuss the ruling.
The education ministry released a statement saying that it planned to study the court's decision. It emphasized that the validity of the ethics and religious culture course was confirmed, even for private schools.
"The course will always be taught in all Quebec schools," Blais said.
The Association of Catholic Parents of Quebec was pleased with the outcome, but the president of the organization said she would have preferred it to include public schools.
Diane Joyal, association president, admitted some bitterness remains despite the outcome because a Catholic catechism course has been replaced by the state-mandated class.
"Since 2008, Catholic parents have lost a lot regarding faith in schools," she said. "Before, you had a choice between Catholic, Protestant or moral classes. Now, unless you're in a confessional [religious] private school, there is but only one option."
Despite the misgivings, Joyal described the outcome as a "beacon of hope" for Catholic parents.
In a related matter in the case, four of the judges determined that Loyola must reapply for an exemption to how it teaches the course under the law and that the education ministry must take the court's decision into account in giving its answer.
Until 2008, catechism was taught in schools and parents could opt to have their children follow Catholic, Protestant or moral classes. The curriculum changed when the government, then led by Premier Jean Charest, developed a new course meant to replace catechism by introducing children and teenagers to a variety of religious traditions. Schools -- public and private -- were ordered to teach the new course without favoring any faith perspective.
Loyola officials asked the education ministry for an exemption that would allow the teaching of catechism from a Catholic perspective. When the exemption was denied, the school took the matter to the Quebec Superior Court and won its case in 2010. The decision was overturned by the Quebec Court of Appeal two years later. As a last resort, Loyola asked the Supreme Court to examine its claim in 2013.
Louis-Philippe Lampron, a law professor at Laval University in Quebec City, said the impact of the decision does not rest so much in Loyola's victory than in the fact that as long as a provincial government allows religious schools, it must also give them the right to teach their own religion from their own faith perspective.
For the Supreme Court, "the state has no legitimacy to impose how to talk about your own religion in a confessional school," Lampron said. "However, the state is justified to impose neutrality when you talk about other religions."
Lampron said the impact of the case is limited because it applies only to religious-run schools when they teach about religion. It does not apply to adding a religious perspective on mandatory biology or history classes, he said.
The case was the second that the Supreme Court reviewed involving the ethics and religious culture course. In 2012, it rejected a claim that it infringed on parents' rights to transmit their faith to their children.