The Appellants unsuccessfully appealed Court of Appeal judgments concerning their motion for declaratory judgments that a decision to deny their children exemptions from a class concerning ethics and religious culture constituted an infringement on their freedom of conscience and religion

Administrative law – Decisions of administrative tribunals – School boards – Charter of Rights and Freedoms – Freedom of Religion – Schools – Parental rights – Judicial review – Mootness

S.L. v. Commision scolaire des Chênes, [2012] S.C.J. No. 7, 2012 SCC 7, Supreme Court of Canada, February 17, 2012, McLachlin C.J. and Binnie, LeBel, Deschamps, Fish, Abella, Charron, Rothstein and Cromwell JJ

The Appellants, S.L. and D.J., had requested that the Respondent, the Commission scolaire des Chênes (the “School Board”) exempt their children from an Ethics and Religious culture course (“ERC”) as it posed a serious harm to their children within the meaning of s.222 of the Education Act, R.S. Q., c. I-13.3 (the “Education Act”). The director of educational resources for young students denied the exemptions and the Appellants had its decision upheld by the council of commissioners. The Appellants then sought a judicial review of the decision of the director and of the council of commissioners, as well a declaration that the ERC program infringed their and their children’s right to freedom of conscience and religion under s.2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the “Charter”) s.3 of the Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms (the “Quebec Charter”). They further argued that the decisions had been made at the dictate of the Ministère de l’Education, du Loisir et du Sport (“Ministère”).

The Superior Court held that the Appellants had not proved that the ERC program, which involved the objective presentation of various religions, put their children in an “obligatory and coercive situation” necessary to establish that it infringed on their freedom of conscience and religion, and that the School Board’s decision to deny the exemptions was valid and had not been made under the Ministère’s influence. The motion for judicial review was dismissed.

The Appellants appealed the dismissal as of right to the Court of Appeal and applied for leave to appeal the decision to dismiss the motion for judicial review, both of which were contested by The Attorney General of Quebec and the School Board. The Court granted the motion to dismiss and dismissed the appeal as of right and the motion for leave to appeal of the Appellants. The Court of Appeal further held that, as the appellants’ two children were no longer obligated to take the ECR program, the appeal had become moot.

The SCC had to consider two issues. First, whether the trial judge erred in holding that the School Board’s refusal to exempt the appellants’ children from the ERC did not infringe the appellants’ freedom of conscience and religion. Second, whether the trial judge erred in holding that the School Board’s decision had not been made at the dictate of a third party and whether the Court of Appeal erred in law in holding that the appeal had become moot.

The SCC considered the applicable principles to be used in determining whether a person’s freedom of conscience and religion had been infringed. The SCC reasoned that an infringement of freedom of religion will have occurred where a religious practice or belief that exists has been infringed, and where a person has a subjective belief, which has a nexus with religion, that he or she must act in accordance with that practice.

The SCC held that, given the requirement of state neutrality in the religious sphere, where the state neither favours nor hinders any particular religious belief, and instead shows respect for all postures towards religion, it will not be impeding on the public’s right to freedom of religion.

The SCC found that the ERC program involved a “comprehensive presentation of various religions without forcing the children to join them” which satisfied the School Board’s obligations of neutrality, and that the Court of Appeal was right to uphold the conclusions of the Superior Court.

To stay current with the new case law and emerging legal issues in this area, subscribe here.