Across Montreal daycares this season, three-year-old children have listened to stories about the Nativity, sung Hanukkah songs and played games for the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. If the activities were used for teaching religion, this year could be their last.
Quebec, which has grappled with efforts to limit the place of religion in its public institutions, has decided to bring secularization to the tot-and-toddler set. Starting in June, publicly funded daycares that teach a particular faith to their young charges risk losing their government funding.
"All questions touching the transmission of faith - that is, teaching religion itself - do not belong within the publicly funded daycare system," Quebec Family Minister Yolande James said in an interview on Tuesday.
No sooner was the policy announced than it set off an debate over how the government will find the line between cultural values and religious teaching, and whether it should be left to inspectors to implement rules that deal with sensitive issues of faith. The government says it is tripling its number of daycare inspectors to 58.
"It will be left to civil servants to decide what is religious and what isn't," said Daniel Amar, executive director of the Quebec Jewish Congress. "How will they make the distinction between religion, tradition and custom? If a child draws a menorah, will the daycare lose its subsidy?"
Some daycares have started scrambling to figure out whether they may violate the government's new guidelines. At the Friends of Don Bosco daycare centre in Montreal's Rivière-des-Prairies district, this year's Christmas concert omitted the reenactment of the Nativity scene. Instead, the children sang Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star and Bing Crosby's Mele Kalikimaka Hawaiian Christmas.
"We didn't sing Silent Night, because we wanted to comply with the directives as quickly as possible," said Pietro Mercuri, head of the parent committee for the daycare, which is partly located in a Catholic church and run by nuns. "We toned it down this year. Part of being a good Christian is following directives and following the law.
"It's too bad, because our parents chose to send their children here because they know it's related to our church," Mr. Mercuri said. "But we don't want to lose our subsidy. In this day and age, everyone is watching their pennies."
The new guidelines say religious symbols such as crucifixes and menorahs are still permitted at daycares, as long as they're not used for religious instruction. A religious leader like an imam or rabbi would be able to visit a daycare, but may not raise religious matters.
Ms. James says Christmas trees can stay, and daycares can still pursue cultural traditions that grow out of a specific faith. But "crafts, role-playing, songs" used for religious teaching are banned, and so are religious rituals done repeatedly. In practice, that would prevent Montreal's 30 Jewish daycares from performing Sabbath ceremonies with the children, which they do each Friday.
"We are very ill at ease with a measure that consists of granting subsidies only to daycares that favour secularism. Secularism has become the new religion," Mr. Amar said.
Salam Elmenyawi of the Muslim Council of Montreal is prepared to challenge the new policy in court on the grounds it tramples on religious rights.
"What is the problem the Quebec government wants to fix?" Mr. Elmenyawi asked. "Are we going to have to stop teaching some of the moral values, like loving your parents, which are emphasized from a religious point of view?"
Quebec says it has the right to have a say about programs in daycares subsidized by the state. Today, parents in Quebec pay only $7 a day to send a child to the public daycare system, with the government covering the rest, about $40 a day.
The Family Ministry says it found an estimated 100 subsidized daycares in the province offering some form of religious focus, representing the Catholic, Muslim, Jewish and Greek Orthodox faiths. The daycares had been receiving funding while clearly stating their religious character since Quebec's universal daycare system was set up in 1997.
However, after media reports earlier this year about the presence of Muslim and Jewish programs in public daycares, the Liberal government intervened.
Ms. James says the inspectors will treat the daycares with respect, but failure to comply with the guidelines could lead to the suspension of funding. Parents who opt for faith-based daycare can always choose to go private, she added. "Every person, every group has the right to their religious beliefs, and to exercise them," Ms. James said. "The line that is clearly being defined here is with respect to the subsidy."