Not your usual 'Inquisition' news hook

What do you know? If you travel north of the border, you'll find that Canadians who are interested in mainstream media coverage of religion news are talking about many of the same subjects as folks down here in the United States. I say this because I just returned from a quick trip to Winnipeg for a speaking engagement linked to an event that has been given this rather weighty title -- the "World Religions Summit 2010: Interfaith Leaders in the G8 Nations." Time after time, the discussions drifted back to growing tensions between religious liberty and free speech claims and groups within Canadian culture -- often Muslims and gay leaders -- that want to be protected from that they see as offensive forms of religious speech, doctrine and practice.

In some cases, Canadian leaders have simply decided that it is time to weaken the presence of religion in the public square -- period. Religion, in other words, is seen as uniquely irrational and divisive. That sounds familiar, doesn't it?

This brings me to the concise and provocative top paragraphs of an A1 report in The Globe and Mail about a conflict unfolding in Quebec. This story was so punchy that it even made sense to me as a staggered off to the Winnipeg airport at a frightfully early hour this morning. Check this out:

In a decision that sets back Quebec's efforts to strip religion from the province's institutions, a judge has ruled that the government showed Inquisition-like intolerance in the way it imposed a secular ethics course on a private Roman Catholic school.

The ironic reference to religious zealotry in the pursuit of secularism came in a ruling that handed a victory to Montreal's Loyola High School. The Jesuit boy's school went to court for the right to keep teaching its ethics course from a Roman Catholic perspective.

In a decision handed down Friday, Superior Court Judge Gerard Dugre said that not only did Quebec violate Loyola's religious freedoms by insisting it teach the secular course, but also it went about it in a "totalitarian" manner.

"In this age of the respect of fundamental rights, of tolerance, reasonable accommodation and multiculturalism, the attitude adopted by the [education] minister is surprising," Judge Dugre wrote. "The obligation imposed on Loyola to teach the ethics and religious culture course in a lay fashion assumes a totalitarian character essentially equivalent to Galileo's being ordered by the Inquisition to deny the Copernican universe."

Did you follow that? While it is true that the provocative language in these paragraphs comes from the judge, reporter Ingrid Peritz certainly managed to cut to the case and make sure that the reader had no way of avoiding the unusual 180-degree twist in the images that drove this decision.

As you would expect, there are strategic differences between how Canada and the U.S. deal with these kinds of issues in public and religious schools. For starters, Loyola -- like most private schools in Quebec -- receives some funds from the provincial government.

But does that mean that the government gets to mandate the contents of an ethics course that Loyola believes is linked to the essentially Catholic worldview of its curriculum? The Global & Mail report, in a small amount of space, was able to explain the key elements of the story in a way that even I -- a bloke from the U.S., for heaven's sake -- could understand them. Here is another summary passage:

The government's ethics and religious course, introduced in 2008, aimed to give equal time to world religions, including Judaism, Islam and first nations spirituality, in response to growing immigration and pluralism in schools.

Loyola High School, an English-language school that has been educating boys since 1896 -- among them former governor-general Georges Vanier and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty -- argued that the government course imposed a "one-size-fits-all" approach to ethics and religion. It asked for an exemption.

The government said no. In a letter to the school, it said that while the government course was "cultural and not founded on faith," Loyola's aimed to "adopt a Jesuit perspective of Christian service." The two approaches to the notion of "common good" are very different, an Education Ministry official wrote.

By all means, check the story out. This is a very complex issue and that comes through in the story. At the same time, I found the blunt contents refreshing. It's easy for readers to get a handle on why tempers are rising.

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