Catholics are leading the fight against secular education, reports Nathan Greenfield
Quebec is to abolish state Protestant and Catholic schools and bring in comparative religious courses in place of denominational instruction.
Existing religious schools will have to take down their crucifixes and will only be allowed to offer denominational instruction after school hours - by hiring out their classrooms to religious groups.
The decision, which will take effect from September 2000, has reignited an inter-denominational row that began last year when Quebec abolished its centuries-old "confessional" school system.
Professor Daniel Weinstock, who served on the commission that examined the place of religious education in Quebec's classrooms, said: "Considerations of equality required that all religious groups be treated the same. This meant either redividing the school system along religious lines, only now going beyond the traditional CatholicProtestant divide; or that we establish common schools that do not give school time to any one religious group but, rather, teach what religions are as opposed to instilling faiths."
Opposition to the plan laid out by a government taskforce in Quebec is being led by the Catholic hierarchy, which until 1964 was responsible for the majority of the province's schools.
Guy Cote, chair of the government's Catholic commission on education, said Catholics supported the switch in 1997 away from confessional school boards based on a religious denomination to boards responsible for schools teaching in one language - French or English. But, he said, Catholics are worried that ending RE in school will deprive parents of the right to choose a type of education that conforms with their convictions and values.
Education minister Francoise Legault has predicted a divisive debate, although the task force found that half of the province's Catholics support the move.
Quebec's Jewish community generally support the plan. Jewish children, when not going to the state-supported private religious schools, have traditionally been enrolled in the more secular Protestant (and English-speaking) schools. Jewish organisations have long called for absolute religious equality in public schools.
Details of what the new cultural RE course that would replace Catholic and Protestant education have not been finalised. But, according to the task force, it will have a comparative perspective and be charged with teaching about all Quebec's religious traditions, including Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu and First Nations' Spirituality.
Phone-in shows are filled with comments directed at the former chairman of the task force, Jean-Pierre Proulx, whose report led to the changes, on the lines of "You want to destroy Quebec" and "Why are you renouncing your religion?".