EARLIER this week, the World Sikh Organization of Canada presented oral arguments at the Supreme Court of Canada in the landmark case of Loyola High School, et al. v. Attorney General of Quebec. This case deals with the right of a Catholic school to teach the Christianity portion of the mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) curriculum, from a faith-based perspective.
The WSO was granted intervener status in the case by the Supreme Court of Canada on January 16 to present arguments on the question of whether religious freedoms for a collective/corporate body are protected under the Canadian and the Quebec charters.
Loyola High School is a private Roman Catholic institution in Quebec which has been denied the right to teach the Christianity portion of the ERC course from a faith-based perspective. Rather, the Government of Quebec has ordered Loyola to teach the province’s ERC course in a secular and “neutral” manner. Although the Quebec Superior Court found that the provincial government violated the school’s right to freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the Quebec Court of Appeal overturned the decision.
On Monday (March 24), the Loyola appeal was heard by the Supreme Court of Canada and WSO General Legal Counsel Palbinder Kaur Shergill presented oral arguments on behalf of the organization. The WSO argued that international human rights norms recognize the collective dimension of religious freedom and that international courts and tribunals have protected the rights of schools such as Loyola. Furthermore, freedom for collective religious activity is important to Sikhs in Canada as it is impossible to be a Sikh by oneself but only as a part of a larger community of believers. A broad interpretation of freedom of religion is critical for the protection of minority religious groups which are more vulnerable to government interference in their internal functioning. The WSO’s complete factum can be seen here.
Shergill said, “The Government of Quebec’s contention that an individual can become “neutral” with respect to their faith for a period of time is at the heart of this case as well as the controversial “Charter of Values”. True secularism is about equality and the neutrality of the state towards religion and not about limiting freedom of religion. It was important for the Court to hear the perspective of the Sikh community on this issue as well as to understand how collective religious activity is an indispensable part of the Sikh practice.”
The WSO was the only non-Christian group to be granted intervener status in the Loyola case. This was the third time the WSO has appeared before the Supreme Court of Canada and the second time in a case involving a non-Sikh appellant. In 2004, WSO intervened in Syndicat Northcrest v. Amselem, on behalf of the Jewish community`s rights to religious freedom, and in 2005, WSO intervened in Multani v. Commission scolaire Marguerite‑Bourgeoys with respect to the right of a Sikh student to wear his kirpan at school.