In a judgment that reins in Quebec's effort to take religion out of its schools, the Supreme Court has ruled that the province infringed on religious freedoms when it refused to allow a private Catholic school in Montreal to teach Catholicism from its own faith-based perspective.
The decision Thursday handed a victory to Loyola High School, which went to court over a Quebec program that sought to teach ethics and world religions from a neutral standpoint. At the same time, the top court helped define some of the boundaries of Quebec's goal of state secularism.
To the province, its 2008 Ethics and Religious Culture program was the culmination of a long-standing drive to remove religion from its schools as they shed their church-dominated past.
Loyola, a Jesuit school that has been educating boys since 1896 – among them former governor-general Georges Vanier and the late finance minister Jim Flaherty – sought an exemption from the course. When it was denied by Quebec, the school launched a legal challenge.
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."
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.
"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 ruling lands at a time the province continues to be roiled by debates over the space given to religious expression in the province – debates that flare up over issues ranging from religious headwear such as hijabs in daycares, to the rights of controversial imams to preach in the city.
Constitutional lawyer Julius Grey says Thursday's ruling strikes a blow against "strident secularism" in Quebec.
"This says that you cannot stop somebody from teaching religion," Mr. Grey said. "Parents and schools are entitled to transmit their religious beliefs to children."
The ruling, which will apply to all private schools in the province, opens to the door to other requests for exemptions to the course, although the court makes clear those schools will have to teach all religions objectively.
"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.
The justices were split 4-3 and differed on the remedy in the case. The minority view, which included Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, did not see a need to send the issue back to Quebec's Minister of Education, "further delaying the relief Loyola has sought for nearly seven years." The majority view said the matter should be referred back to Quebec.
Provincial Education Minister François Blais said the government would analyze the ruling. He said the Supreme Court validated the province's ethics and religious culture course, even in private religious schools, and that the course would continue to be taught in all schools.
John Zucchi, the Loyola parent who became co-plaintiff in the case, says he initiated the complaint because he thought Quebec was taking a "bad educational approach."
"You can't tell someone to not have a religious perspective, even for one or two classes," said Mr. Zucchi, a professor at McGill University. "I didn't like the fact that an identity was being shut down, even for a few moments. As parents we welcome a secular society, but a secular society is one that is open to all voices."