January 06, 2011

Should religion be a government service?

I've been wanting to write about this issue for a week now, but every time I read the article in question, I get so angry I can't bring myself to set down my thoughts clearly. I've taken issue with the writing of Father Raymond J. De Souza before. The man's a bit intellectually dishonest, if you ask me, and this most recent article of his highlights that like none other to date.

As mentioned in the above linked piece, the Quebec government subsidizes daycare in the Province. Not all daycares are subsidized; there are private, unsubsidized daycare centers available to any who want what they offer. However, any daycare provider who follows government guidelines can offer customers daycare for only $7 per day, with the government picking up the balance of the tab (about $40).

Until recently, the government guidelines did not address the issue of religious instruction of children in daycare centers. I mean, why would they? We're talking about children under the ages of five years old here. Surely there isn't any serious religious instruction going on, is there? Well, it seems there is - at least in some centers. According to government figures, there are over 2000 subsidized daycare providers in the Province, and it has come to light that about 100 of them are religious in nature - that is, their purpose is primarily to provide religious instruction to specific cultural groups. So, the government has moved to stop the practice, and the religious people are all up in arms about it.

Father De Souza's December 30th column in the National Post is an example of the hyperbole being bandied about.

As far as I'm concerned, the Quebec government has taken the only steps they could have, given the situation. In disseminating government funded public services, whether they be unemployment benefits, or health care, or drivers licensing, or daycare, there are only two essential requirements: universality of access, and universality of experience. Government funded public services must be, as much as possible, available to all with the same level of access, and providing the same level of service, and the same service experience to all.

If I were Jewish, and my next-door neighbour were Muslim, and we both sent our children to the same neighbourhood daycare center, and we both paid the same price to do so, that constitutes identical access to the service. However, if the daycare in question is run by a Synagogue, and provides religious instruction in Judaism to the children, and no instruction in Islaam, then that does not constitute an equal level of service. The Muslim family would be right to complain.

"But," I might say, "you can take your children to the daycare run by the Mosque. It's only ten blocks away." That might be true, but while I could walk my child one block to the local daycare center, my neighbour would have to inconvenience himself by driving ten blocks to get the same level of service. In some communities, there simply isn't another alternative. We are no longer talking about universality of access. If a government funded public service does not provide equal access and equal services to every member of society, regardless of race, gender, religion, or sexual preference, it is unfair, and, quite frankly, unconstitutional.

That is what the government of Quebec is trying to fix. To hear Father De Souza tell it (and many other commentators around the web), the government is furthering some kind of anti-religion agenda.

The educational world in Quebec does not leave much room to breathe. The consensus position, as defined by the curriculum apparatchiks, must be taught without exception in all public schools, private schools and even at home. Until now, the preschoolers had escaped the stifling grasp of government. No longer.

This is, however, disingenuous. The government is not trying to prevent you from teaching your children your religion. They are simply trying to prevent you from teaching my children your religion, in a publicly funded venue, against my wishes. In order to ensure equlity of service experience in this situation, there are only two possible courses of action: either provide instruction to all children in every possible religion, or provide none. The former, being impractical, and virtually impossible, the latter becomes the only real option. To deny this is to deny a free and equal society.

The thing that makes me so angry, though, is that Father De Souza knows all this, and he doesn't care. He's trying to make it sound like someone's rights have been violated, when that just isn't the case. The entire purpose of secular government is to protect everyone's rights equally. He says:

The heart of every culture is its attitude to the big questions of human life and existence. That's why a sensible people leaves culture in the hands of the churches, the artists and the writers. Only a deeply insecure society entrusts culture to bureaucratic inquisitors. And only bureaucratic inquisitors see threats in the cradle.

But, Father De Souza, aren't you arguing in this piece that you want religious instruction in the government regulated daycares? Why don't you leave it to the churches, the artists, and the writers?

He's trying to turn the argument around, and make it sound like the the state is advancing an educational agenda, when, in truth, they are withdrawing one. Religious belief is a personal thing. Let's keep it where it belongs, in the homes and the churches of the believers, where, contrary to what Father De Souza would have you believe, it is not under attack.