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Toward a just and inclusive school system: defending the Proulx Report.

The eight members of the task force were drawn from the academic, legal and educational arenas, and represent a variety of religious perspectives and faiths. It was presided by Jean-Pierre Proulx of the University of Montreal, one of our most widely respected experts on Quebec's school system. The task force met at regular intervals over 18 months and commissioned a number of reports on issues relevant to its mandate. The task force released its final report in March, 1999. The report, accompanied by a number of annexes detailing the findings of the various working groups, has since become known as the Proulx Report.

The problem

In its present form, Quebec's public school system enshrines the historical privilege Catholics and Protestants have enjoyed over Quebec's public sphere. As such, it patently violates both the letter and spirit of the guarantees of religious equality and freedom of conscience at the core of our constitutional order. To maintain the system the Quebec government invoked the federal Constitution's notwithstanding clause, which allows provincial legislation to override provisions of the Charter of Rights. But the question was now posed: should the status quo with respect both to the status of schools and to the content of religious instruction offered in the schools be maintained?

That is why Quebec's Minister of Education set up our task force. As the "resident philosopher" on the panel, I was especially concerned with determining the normative considerations which ought to prevail in rethinking the place of religion in public schools. More specifically, I wanted to determine whether any weighty normative considerations might warrant using the notwithstanding clause to override the present system's incompatibility with core liberal democratic values.

In our final report, we concluded that there were no such considerations. As a matter of political morality, we recommended that Quebec's school system be deconfessionalized. Deconfessionalization would bring our school system into line with the normative commitments enshrined in both Quebec and Canada's constitutions -- as well as in a number of international human rights instruments to which Canada officially subscribes. And it would also be in the spirit of the social choices Quebecers have made since the Quiet Revolution: the adoption of an inclusive and open conception of Quebec citizenship as the only basis on which immigrants to Quebec society can be integrated on a truly equal footing.

Rather than do away with religious instruction altogether, however, we argued it might be possible to rethink the way in which religion is taught in the schools. Rather than approaching religious phenomena from the point of view of a single faith, conceived of as exclusive of other faiths, pupils in Quebec schools could be presented with the riches of humanity's common religious heritage, from a non-confessional, cultural perspective.

I want in this essay to sketch the reasoning which led us to two key conclusions. First, as a matter of justice, Quebec's school system needs to be deconfessionalized. Second, consonant with the basic liberal democratic norm of state neutrality with respect to religion, it would be possible, and even advisable, to replace the current system of confessional religious instruction with an open and inclusive cultural approach. I will also address the principal objections which have been formulated against the report since its publication.

The basic argument

The basic argument against the confessional status of public schools is quite straightforward: Quebec is a liberal democracy. As such, its core normative commitment is to treat all of its citizens with equal concern and respect. It would patently fail to live up to this standard if it were to declare an official state religion. In so doing, it would be saying to those citizens who do not profess the state religion that it does not, on this crucial matter pertaining to their most fundamental convictions, consider them to be on an equal footing with their fellow citizens. The principle of the separation of church and state -- a cornerstone of liberal democratic theory -- is thus at least in part grounded in the fundamental tenet of the equality of all citizens.

When the state allows some religious groups to have their own confessional schools within the public educational system, it is in effect violating this principle of basic equality just as surely as if it were to enshrine the supremacy of these religions in its Constitution. A system which grants this privilege to some religions conveys the message that only those religions deserve to have their messages propagated by the institutions of the state. This suggests that citizens who worship in a different way, or who profess no religion at all, are unequal in a fundamental respect.

The present confessional status of Quebec schools, and of the religious instruction that goes on within their walls, therefore violates a basic tenet of political morality to which Quebec, as a liberal democracy, is committed. Are there any countervailing political values which might, on balance, justify the government in maintaining the present system notwithstanding its incompatibility with this tenet?

Some have argued that Quebec's religious heritage is integral to its identity as a distinct society, in much the same way that the French language is. Thus, the argument runs, the same considerations which justify Quebec in protecting the French language should also warrant its taking analogous steps to protect its distinctive religious heritage.

This argument however breaks down on closer inspection. Taking steps to ensure that French is the lingua franca of Quebec's public sphere does not compromise the government's commitment to treating its citizens with equal care and respect. On the contrary, the ability to communicate in French can be acquired with minimal effort by anyone. It does not endanger anyone's identity or fundamental beliefs. And it enables any person to participate as an equal with all other citizens within Quebec's public sphere.

The preservation of a religious heritage through public institutions is quite different. Citizens wishing to integrate fully into Quebec civil society cannot simply choose to take on the religion of the majority without seriously compromising their most fundamental beliefs and endangering core components of their identities. The preservation of a religious heritage through public institutions is thus an impediment to, rather than (as in the case of language) an enabling condition of equal citizenship.

We could not find in an argument based on heritage or identity a legitimate reason to resist the conclusion that, as a liberal democracy committed to the equal care and respect of all its citizens, Quebec's government ought to prohibit any religious doctrine from becoming enshrined within public institutions. Such institutions ought to be rigorously neutral with respect to matters of faith.

Which neutrality?

What does this commitment to the religious neutrality of public institutions mean in practice? There seem to be two ways in which the government can organize public institutions so as to satisfy this requirement. First, it can extend the privilege currently enjoyed in Quebec by two religious groups to all religious groups. Second, it can withdraw the privilege from those who presently enjoy it, so that no religious group gets to have its own confessional schools within the public school system. In keeping with the terminology of the Proulx Report, let us refer to these respectively as the communitarian and the republican approaches to neutrality. On the face of it, both approaches satisfy the requirement of equal concern and respect equally well, though they employ different means to do it.

This appearance does not however stand up to close examination. As the defenders of the communitarian approach have themselves acknowledged, the extension of the privilege currently enjoyed by Catholics and Protestants to other groups would in practice have to be limited by a numerus clausus ("where numbers warrant" clause). That is, where a sufficient concentration of members of a faith exists to make a confessional school professing their faith practically viable, then, and only then, will the members of the faith in question be able to avail themselves of the privilege.

But what then becomes of members of religious groups that are not represented in great number in Quebec society, or of children who live in a part of the province where the only school close enough is a confessional school organized according to the tenets of a religion not their own? These children would be marked off as unequal and stigmatized on a local scale in exactly the same way that those who do not profess either the Catholic or the Protestant faiths are currently devalorized on a society-wide scale by the existing system. The communitarian approach to neutrality, despite initial appearances to the contrary, does not address the injustices of the current system; it merely shifts them to the local level.

What's more, the communitarian approach to neutrality would give rise to a balkanized school system which separated children on the basis of religion in an institution which, along with the family, exercises the most decisive influence on the socialization of children. It would therefore deliver a death blow to the goal of encouraging an open and inclusive sense of citizenship and common public culture which Quebec society has in recent years struggled mightily to achieve.

Note that the communitarian position does not fare any better when it is proposed that different religious groups be accommodated by having religious instruction offered to their youngest members within common schools. A numerus clausus would presumably still apply. That is, classes would only be offered in a given religion if it turned out that there were sufficient young members of the religion to make such classes viable. Otherwise, as exponents of this position acknowledge, the scheme would not be practicable. What's more, this variation on the communitarian theme would exacerbate the problem of stigmatization, as children would very visibly be separated from one another when religious issues came up. This would be particularly problematic in schools with a large religious majority and much smaller groups professing different faiths, or no faith at all.

Thus, we argued that, both for reasons of justice and for reasons having to do with promotion of a shared sense of citizenship, the commitment to the fundamental equality of all citizens requires the implementation of a republican form of neutrality in public institutions.

Rethinking religious education

The neutrality of public institutions with respect to religious matters implies that public schools be stripped of their religious status. It also requires that schools abstain from proselytizing, and more generally from using public education as a means to educate the young into particular faiths.

Does this mean that religious instruction ought to be removed altogether from public schools? It does not. It simply requires that schools not organize religious instruction around the assumption that a particular religious doctrine is superior to others, or around the aim of educating their pupils into a particular faith. This leaves open the possibility of religious instruction which presents pupils with the combined riches of humankind's shared religious heritage. A course could be imagined which would help pupils appreciate and understand the vast cultural and historical importance which religion has had, without making its purpose to induct them into any particular religion. The brief, we commissioned from a panel of experts on religious education makes plain that there are examples of such courses having been implemented successfully, most notably in England.

What reasons might there be to reorganize religious instruction so as to bring it into line with the requirement of religious neutrality, rather than do away with it altogether? Three sets of considerations loomed large in our deliberations. First, the vast public opinion survey we commissioned revealed many Quebecers still want religious values to be transmitted through the schools. This was an important consideration -- but not an absolute one. We could not accept that a majority's wanting something in itself constitutes a reason to grant it. To think otherwise would be to confuse democracy with mob rule. Majoritarian decision-making must always be constrained by basic principles of justice. And one such principle is the separation of church and state.

Happily, a close examination of the survey results indicates that what Quebecers want taught in schools is not the values which distinguish religions from one another, but rather, values of tolerance, justice and sharing which cut across all religious traditions. Thus, a course of religious instruction which emphasized humankind's shared religious heritage would be in line both with basic liberal-democratic principles, and with what a majority of Quebecers actually want for their children.

Moreover, a non-confessional course emphasizing humankind's shared religious heritage could contribute to tolerance and understanding between religious groups. It is a platitude that much religious intolerance and stereotyping is born of ignorance. By exposing children to other religious doctrines presented in a positive light, and by placing them in a context in which they can interact with children from those religious traditions without differences being swept under the carpet, schools can contribute to reducing religious intolerance.

Third, and perhaps most fundamentally, we felt that religious instruction of the kind we recommend is an integral element of a complete education. Indeed religious convictions have been at the basis both of some of humankind's greatest creations and accomplishments -- and of some of its most egregious follies and crimes. Culture and religions have been intimately intertwined for much of human history, and so there can be no full understanding of many of the greatest works of human imagination without awareness of their religious dimension. Similarly, light would not be shed on such human horrors as the Crusades, the Wars of Religion and, arguably, the Holocaust were the religious hatreds at the basis of these events not uncovered. In sum, an inclusive, non-confessional religious education accedes to the wishes of Quebec parents, diminishes religious hatred and bigotry, and deepens the educational experience.

Some objections

On the basis of this line of reasoning, we argued that Quebec's public schools should be deconfessionalized, and that religious instruction within secular schools should be reorganized in a non-confessional and inclusive manner. The resulting system would be fully in line with fundamental norms of liberal democracy. It would also correspond to the kind of school which most Quebecers seem to want for their children. And it would fit into the modernizing thrust of the Quiet Revolution, one of the core ideals of which has been, and continues to be, that Quebec's public sphere be open and inclusive.

The publication of the Proulx Report was met with a good deal of controversy. Not surprisingly, those who presently benefit from an unjust system were quick to argue for the maintenance of their privileges. I would like in closing to respond to the main lines of argument against the report.

1. The argument for communitarian neutrality

Speaking strictly for myself, nothing about the debate around the Proulx Report has surprised me more than the readiness of many critics to espouse what I referred to above as communitarian neutrality. Many of our critics argued that we ought to have considered more seriously the possibility that the privileges presently enjoyed by Catholics and Protestants be extended to other religious groups.

Part of the fault for this probably lies with the report itself. We simply did not expect that so many would be attracted by what seemed to us plainly to be a socially disastrous conception for public education. The vision of society we would be conveying to our children by dividing them from other children on the basis of religion simply did not bear scrutiny. Communitarian neutrality was, in my mind at least, merely a logical possibility, not one that we would want seriously to consider for the open and inclusive society we want Quebec to be.

Thinking that the balkanized vision which communitarian neutrality would generate would rule it out of court, we probably did not dwell as much as we should have on its injustice. As I have already shown, communitarian neutrality is as unjust as the present system, inasmuch as it would simply end up relocating injustices to the local level. Clearly, not all religions could be accommodated in such a system. A numerus clausus would necessarily apply. Members of numerically smaller religious groups (and also members of larger religions who happen to find themselves in a neighbourhood or in a school with a different religious majority) would suffer exactly the same injustices and stigmatizations currently visited on those who are neither Catholic or Protestant within the present system.

Thus, communitarian neutrality is a non-starter.

2. The Cote-des-neiges argument

Many critics of the report have held that the changes to Quebec's public school system we recommend are based upon the felt need to accommodate religious diversity. However, the argument continues, religious diversity in Quebec is a rather limited phenomenon. It is geographically concentrated on the Island of Montreal, and only in some neighbourhoods of Montreal at that, such as Cote-des-neiges. Critics who hold this line draw the inference that, while deconfessionalized schools and non-confessional religious instruction might be appropriate for such neighbourhoods, it is not appropriate for more religiously homogeneous regions.

The argument is both factually and morally suspect. First, as far as its factual basis is concerned, its exponents overestimate the degree of religious homogeneity outside Montreal. Many citizens born in the Catholic tradition, but who do not wish to provide their children with religious instruction, currently have to choose between the unattractive alternatives of having their children instructed in a religion in which they do not believe, or imposing upon them the stigmatization of being marked off and separated from their fellow schoolchildren by pulling them out of the default course of confessional religious instruction. What's more, the argument presupposes a static conception of Quebec's population distribution. Though many regions do not have the same degree of religious diversity as Montreal, citizens who live in such regions today may very well live in more diverse communities tomorrow. And those who argue in this way forget that, increasingly, we are all citizens of a global village. And responsible global citizenship requires at least minimal understanding of the people with whom we interact on the global stage, people who very often profess very different religious faiths.

So the factual basis of this argument is weak at best. But more fundamentally, it is also ethically unacceptable. In a liberal democracy, individuals have rights regardless of their numerical weight. The whole point of rights is to protect minorities, no matter how small, against the majority's tendency to run roughshod over their interests. To say that the other regions of Quebec are more homogeneous than immigrant neighbourhoods of Montreal means in reality that those who are of other faiths, or who profess no faith, are in such regions less numerous than they are in Montreal. But their right to religious equality and freedom of conscience is no less because of this fact.

What's more, the three reasons invoked above to justify the inclusion of a non-confessional course of religious instruction in the public school curriculum apply to all Quebec citizens, regardless of the particular religious complexion of the region in which they happen to live. Children everywhere in Quebec can gain from being free of religious intolerance and hatred and learning the values and doctrines which make up humankind's shared religious heritage. To deny such an education to children because of the region in which they live is a form of discrimination. It is to deny to some children an aspect of their education to which they have a right, on the basis of their place of residence.

3. The parents' right argument

This argument is quite straightforward, as is its refutation. Those who hold it believe that parents have a right to educate their children as they see fit. If they want to provide their children with a confessional education, they ought to be allowed to do so.

The argument runs into two decisive objections. First, even if we grant that parents do in fact possess this right, it does not follow that they also have the right to have the type of education they want their children to possess paid for by the state. Overriding reasons might exist against having the state pay for the type of education they privilege. As we have seen, such overriding reasons exist in the case of state-funded religious education.

Second, and more fundamentally, the right to educate one's children as one sees fit is more problematic than appears at first glance. For example, if I decided that my children not receive education in mathematics, I would be rightly prevented from acting on my preference. Parents' prerogatives over their children's education are limited by their children's fundamental educational interests. And as we have seen, there exists a form of religious education that better corresponds to the educational interests of children than does an exclusive, confessional one.

4. The democratic argument

Finally, it has often been claimed that the recommendations of the Proulx Report are anti-democratic. If a majority of Quebecers want confessional religious schools, the argument runs, then respect for democracy requires that they be able to have them. Enough has been said to indicate the profound error at the basis of this claim. Allowing the majority to do whatever it wants is not democracy. Democracy requires the presence of basic norms of justice which ensure that democratic decision-making will not violate anyone's rights. So a majority would only be entitled to confessional schools if it turned out that such schools satisfied basic norms of justice. As we have seen, they do not.

Thankfully, it is unclear that a majority of Quebecers actually want to maintain the present system. Our opinion surveys indicate that a majority actually would prefer an inclusive school in which common religious values were taught to all children. Those who prefer the status quo have certainly been loudest since the report was published. But volume should not be confused with depth. I firmly believe that the kind of school we have attempted to imagine is in line with a strong underlying current of opinion in Quebec. After the dust has settled, I am confident that Quebecers will make it plain that an open and inclusive school system is precisely what they want for their children.

What now?

After the task force released its report, the new Minister of Education (Francois Legault) called public hearings in which to receive briefs from concerned individuals and groups. A wide variety of opinions and viewpoints was expressed, and the expectation was that the government would then act on the basis of its assessment of the merits of the case, as put forward by our report and by concerned citizens, and so bring Quebec's house in order as far as religion in public schools is concerned.

Thus far, the government has reacted cautiously. While recognizing the unacceptable nature of the present dispensation, it does not seem to want to ruffle the feathers that would unavoidably be ruffled by decisive action. It would seem that the government sees clearly what the outcome of this debate should be, but does not want to take the steps required to get us there.

But the genie is out of the bottle. Even if the present balance of forces manages to preserve the status quo for some time into the future, we are clearly headed for a sea-change in the way in which religion and public schooling interact.
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Author:Weinstock, Daniel
Publication:Inroads: A Journal of Opinion
Date:Jan 1, 2000
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