Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Why 'public' should not mean 'atheist'

The Ottawa Citizen
16 September, 2010
Reproduced with permission

Iain T. Benson, B.A. (Hons.), M.A. (Cantab.), LL.B. *

How religions and the public sphere relate is not something we are very clear about in Canada. We like to think we have the principles worked out but then some conflict comes along and we seem to be back in the land of confused debates.

A recent Quebec court decision involving a subsidized private Catholic school slammed that province for denying the right to teach a provincially mandated ethics course from a confessional perspective. In the wake of that decision, some have suggested religious liberty -- which includes public practices and the right to non-discriminatory treatment -- should vary with whether or not the school received public funding.

For some, the fact that the school was partly subsidized should qualify the rights of the Catholic school on the theory there is a generalized and valid "secularized curriculum," that is "the state's."

This approach, though it is commonly heard, is, with respect to those who differ, incorrect in both law and principle. "Public" means "publically funded" and, when properly understood, there is room in our law and principles for both public religious education and public religious schools, and no room for one "secularized curriculum" or an atheist or agnostically dominated "public" in the way this is all too often suggested or implied. Not allowing publicly funded religious education is a blatant infringement of religious liberty, or should be seen as such.

With respect to principles, we as Canadians are proud of how we live in peace despite wide ethnic and religious diversity. We recognize that peace requires respect for diversity, so we strive to treat each other fairly and in non-discriminatory ways and to be as inclusive and accommodating as possible. What we have not done well is apply the logic of these commitments to how we think about the public sphere. Too often we fall into a secularistic understanding in which the public sphere is described as "secular," meaning "non-religious," but this fails to pass the legal, practical or logical tests once we recognize that the public sphere is made up of religious and non-religious citizens.

Nothing in our theories or history should support turning religious believers and their communities into second-class citizens when it comes to public involvement and funding. In short, atheism and agnosticism ought not to be favoured public claimants in Canada any longer.

Legally, we are the first country in the world to have its highest court determine that our understanding of "secular" is that the public sphere includes religion and does not exclude it. This was said in the Chamberlain case in 2002 in relation to the rights of public school trustees to make decisions that take into account their own religious beliefs and those of the parents in the surrounding community. That landmark decision and its very wide-spread implications are not well enough known and they need to be.

Charities, health care and education are all areas in which Canada has practically and legally recognized the importance of religious projects supported entirely or in part by public funds. This recognizes the co-operation between the state and church, synagogue, temple and so on. We don't have in Canada any kind of strict "separation" as we see south of the border. It is from the Americans we also get the idea of "public funding" arguments wherein the provision of those funds with any religious "entanglement" is suspect if for any public purpose. The provision of public funding is relevant in Canada only in the most general way to determine what is public and what is private. It does not give the right by the state to dictate what religions may teach or practise, nor is such funding "suspect." What governs here is respect for diversity and fairness of funding delivery, not an exclusion or reduction of religious activity on the basis of where funding comes from.

Canadian history, from the beginning, has recognized the relevance of religion as a public good and statistics support its importance in areas such as charitable giving, volunteerism and membership. The importance of publicly assisted religious charitable work is well known in Canada and essential to our society.

So, why should religious parents be forced to pay more (or get less) than those parents who want an atheistic or agnostic faith-based education for their children? Who gave atheists and agnostics control of the public purse strings? Answer: no one. The Chamberlain decision rejected that sort of approach and ruled there is no basis in the Canadian Constitution to make religious people second-class citizens excluded from the public sphere.

The public systems may require that both religious and non-religious schools, operating in the public sphere (public if they receive funding) teach a genuinely diverse course on "civics" which would include classes that teach about the various religions and cultures that make up Canada. But even this must accord with the respect rightly claimed by the religions and should not be used as a means to subvert religious beliefs on matters that are legally contestable (such as the nature of marriage or the rightness or wrongness of abortion). Public funding does not give a right to dictate against religious beliefs. Where we are thinking about kinds of public education the relevant division is between "public" and "non-public," not between "religious" and "non-religious" education. Properly understood, both religious and non-religious education can be within the public sphere in Canada.

So ,while publicly funded religious education is, in a qualified sense, also public education, religion is insulated from state control except on the limited basis set out above. Where there are conflicts, the ministries of education and the courts should try to the greatest extent possible to reconcile the rights that are in conflict, not trump one set by another (i.e. by some sort of demand for a "secularized" curriculum free of religion but not other belief systems).

If religious or non-religious schools want no civics courses at all and these are legitimately required and respectful of religion, then, and only then, can the public funding argument be used to ask them to go their own way without state assistance. Some will choose to operate outside of public funding for their own reasons in any case, and that is their right as well.

Just as there is no "view from nowhere," every system has its ideology. A "one size fits all" approach which undergirds the claim to restrict religious education or its funding in the name of a so-called "unified" system should be seen for what it is: anti-diversity, anti-fairness, and anti-Canadian.

Canadian pluralism at its core means learning the arguments that encourage fairness of treatment and diversity of delivery around a core curriculum of Canadian civics; we need now to spend more time creating that. Continued insistence upon "one public system" -- and that a non-religious one -- should be seen for what it is: an unjust illusion that attacks, rather than assists, core Canadian principles.

This re-understanding of what public education is may not be how we are accustomed to thinking of public sphere education principles in Canada, but it is where the logic of diversity, pluralism and fairness should end up.