Jackson Doughart
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Why Quebec is right to keep religion out of daycare

The Holy Post, 04 January 2011


In December, Quebec’s Minister of Family Yolande James announced that the Quebec government will no longer allow subsidized daycare centres in the province to include religion in their programs. This decision responded to media reports earlier this year that Muslim and Jewish daycare centres were receiving public funds.

“We will not teach about dogma, belief or specific religious practices to children up to the age of five, regardless of the religion,” said James during the announcement, reported by Le Journal de Québec. She went on to explain that children may continue to be taught about cultural traditions that have religious roots but any activities that amount to religious instruction will no longer be permitted. Private daycare centres that receive funding from the provincial government will have to ensure that their programs are in accordance with the new directive by June, or risk losing their subsidies.

The reaction to this announcement in English Canada has been generally negative. On Dec. 28, Globe and Mail columnist Lysiane Gagnon mocked the initiative and accused the Quebec government of having a radical secularist agenda. Her column also discussed the intentions of Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, to mount a legal challenge against the policy on the grounds that it violates constitutional protections of religious freedom. In his Dec. 30 column, National Post’s Father Raymond J. de Souza echoed Gagnon’s objections to the decision, attributing the policy to “secular fundamentalism.” An earlier Globe editorial accused the Quebec government of attempting to solve a non-existent problem.

Contrary to this assertion, religious instruction in state-subsidized daycare centres is a problem because it violates the separation that should exist between religion and government. This separation is essential to ensuring that public policies are developed by thoroughly examining and debating interpretations of evidence and rational arguments instead of adhering to the teachings of dominant religious denominations. Secularism also protects religious institutions from state interference in their own internal theological affairs. Since this policy ultimately strengthens the divide between religion and government, the Quebec initiative is defensible and should merit consideration for adoption by other provinces.

It is imperative that the wall of separation between religion and government be strong and aggressively defended because of the diversity of personal beliefs among Canadians. This wide spectrum of beliefs ranges from fundamentalist convictions that are based upon literal interpretations of holy texts, to more moderate beliefs that attempt to reconcile religious traditions with the advancement of science and philosophy, to the complete rejection of religious beliefs as dogmatic, obsolete and demonstrably false.

The drilling of any holes in this wall of separation creates a slew of logistical problems. With respect to the issue of daycare centres, such holes necessarily obligate the government to treat all religious appeals to educate young children equally in order to avoid being discriminatory. Providing subsidized religious instruction to toddlers may appear to be benign and inconsequential if only moderate beliefs are taught, but there is no reason to think that this would be the case. Those who do not object to the guidance of young children in diluted Christian beliefs would doubtless be uncomfortable with providing fundamentalist religious instruction at public expense. If moderate Christians can have state-financed daycares, so can Haredi Jews, reactionary Evangelicals, Scientologists and extremist Muslims because there exists no mechanism by which the government can discriminate between moderate and extreme beliefs.

Attempting to create such a mechanism would create even more problems than it solves. Those who loathe the idea of having government inspectors examine daycare centres for evidence of religious instruction should more strongly oppose having government bureaucrats determining which religious beliefs are acceptable and which ones are not.

One of the particularly criticized aspects of the initiative is the distinction between religious instruction and cultural celebrations and traditions, which the minister made in her announcement about the new directive. Obviously, Ms. James is referring to Christmas celebrations and she said as much during the announcement: “There is a difference between teaching religion and celebrating a cultural tradition,” she said. “In other words, we are not taking out Christmas trees.”

While separating cultural traditions from Christian teachings may not always be easy given the role that Christianity has played in Canadian history, the alternative of financing religious instruction to children is far worse. The practices or symbols that should be eliminated are those that directly lead to religious teaching, such as religious songs or activities involving the biblical story of Jesus’ nativity.

Constitutional protections of religious freedom are cited as the primary objections to the new directive on behalf of religious organizations in Quebec. However, this issue is not about the freedom of citizens to practice their religion, but rather about government subsidies to daycare centres that include religious instruction in their programs. In fact, there are no restrictions against families who want to send their child to a daycare that does instruct toddlers about religion. What matters is funding. If parents want their children to be sent to religious daycare centres, they should have to pay for it themselves, and under the new Quebec initiative, this is exactly what they will have to do.

In her article, Gagnon quotes Daniel Amar, the executive director of the Quebec Jewish Congress, who says that, “In Quebec, secularism is the new religion.” This is a frequently-employed tactic by the religious to discredit secular ideals by passing them off as just a different set of religious beliefs. Secularism is not a religion, but rather a concept that encourages the government and religious establishments to be distinctly separate institutions. The Quebec government is not suggesting that toddlers should be taught about the ills of religion or the lack of evidence supporting religious claims, but rather that religion should be left in homes and in churches, at least until children are old enough to discuss religion critically. Instead of jeering, English Canada should praise Quebec for having strengthened its wall of separation between religion and government and should endeavour to consider the implications of mixing religious instruction and state financing in its own provinces.





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Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com