Last month’s ‘Religious Freedom in Education’ conference, co-sponsored by the Faculty of Law and McGill’s Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism, could hardly have been more timely.

Organized through McGill University’s ‘Pluralism, Religion and Public Policy’ project, the symposium brought together academics, teachers and students from a wide variety of fields—from law, education, and religious studies, to philosophy, political science and anthropology—in a truly interdisciplinary examination of the policy challenges posed by religious pluralism in the education setting.

There was a lot to talk about. With the Parti Québécois government’s proposed secular charter dominating headlines in the province this fall, and the province’s mandatory Ethics and Religious Culture (ERC) course for high-school students soon to be scrutinized anew by the Supreme Court in Loyola v. Courchesne, it was only too easy for conference speakers and attendees to connect the themes of the conference to current events that have polarized public opinion in Quebec recently.

“I think the interventions may have been a little bit more charged than they otherwise would have been,” offered Blair Major, a DCL candidate and the Faculty of Law’s representative on the conference-organizing committee. “As an organizer, though, that’s what you’re hoping for. It’s fantastic to see people so engaged.”

The symposium got off to a lively start in the Moot Court. An opening address by Osgoode Hall Law School Professor Benjamin L. Berger, on “Religion, Education, and the ‘Crisis’ in State Neutrality” was followed by a highly anticipated debate between Charles Taylor, Emeritus Professor in the Philosophy Department at McGill, and Daniel Turp, currently professor of constitutional law at the Université de Montréal and one-time Bloc Québécois MP and Parti Québécois MNA, on the merits and desirability of the province’s proposed secular charter.

Daniel Turp and Charles Taylor squared off in the Moot Court. You can watch the debate on McGill Podcasts
Daniel Turp and Charles Taylor squared off in the Moot Court. You can watch the debate on McGill Podcasts. More photos and links are available on the conference website.

Turp and Taylor squared off in memorable fashion, the former making a case in support of the charter, and the latter vehemently opposing it. Recognizing that Taylor stood to benefit from a geographic and ideological home-field advantage, Turp at one point jokingly referred to himself as “Daniel-in-the-lion’s den,” to much laughter. Not to be outdone in the metaphor department, Taylor likened the absurdity of the government’s position on the charter to a Monty Python skit. Although the panel moderator chose not to render a verdict following their spirited back-and-forth exchange, it is fair to say that the packed audience in the Moot Court came out a winner.

Events on Friday, held at the Faculty of Religious Studies’ Birks Chapel, and Saturday, at Loyola High School, carried through the momentum that had been generated on Thursday, and reinforced the interdisciplinary character of the symposium.

Several faculty members from McGill Law were featured prominently. Professors Daniel Weinstock, Shauna Van Praagh, and Victor Muniz-Fraticelli addressed issues as varied as culture wars between majority and minority values (Weinstock), neutrality in teaching (Van Praagh), the broader stakes of Loyola v. Courchesne (Muniz-Fraticelli), and the very meaning of religious freedom in a plural, secular society.

Doctoral students at the faculty of law also contributed. In addition to serving on the conference organizing committee, Blair Major chaired a panel on the voices of children in education, on which fellow DCL candidate, Dia Dabby, served as a presenter. Ms. Dabby also chaired a separate panel that sought to incorporate international perspectives on religious freedom in education.

“I thought the symposium was tremendously successful at bringing together people from different backgrounds, with differing perspectives,” concluded Major. “My only regret is that we didn’t have more time! There’s so much going on when it comes to religion and education, especially in Quebec. We were really only able to touch upon the tip of the iceberg.”

–  Geoffrey Conrad, DCL Candidate.

For more information on the conference: