Lawyer for Quebec couple urges court to act against ultra-Orthodox schools

MONTREAL — Ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools operating north of Montreal are illegal and their religious curriculum for boys is so onerous the students have little time to study anything else, a lawyer told a Montreal courtroom on Wednesday.

Bruce Johnston, who is representing an ex-Hasidic couple in their claim that the province and ultra-Orthodox schools in Boisbriand, Que., failed to ensure they were properly educated, said the court has a chance to remedy the situation.

“How could a boy going to religious classes at six in the morning and coming back at 9 p.m. have any time for school?” Johnston asked Superior Court Justice Martin Castonguay during his closing arguments.

Yochonon Lowen and Clara Wasserstein are seeking a ruling declaring the province and the Hasidic schools violated provincial education laws. The couple, who have left the Boisbriand Tash community, accuse the schools and the Quebec government of leaving them unprepared for a life within mainstream society.

“They aren’t asking for damages, because they want to maximize the chances of changing the situation,” Johnston told the court.

Eric Cantin, a lawyer for the Quebec government, said in his closing arguments that the province has recently instituted new rules governing the Boisbriand Hasidic schools. He said there have been many improvements in schooling in the Hasidic communities since Wasserstein and Lowen lived there.

The community’s children now need to be registered as home-schoolers, Cantin said, giving the government the ability to monitor their academic progress. Cantin said the new rules ensure all children who aren’t in government schools or in certified private schools can be properly educated.

“We are able to track all the 830 children in Boisbriand,” Cantin said. “Those children will be evaluated. This is good news. It wasn’t always like that.”

David Banon, lawyer for the Tash community, said Lowen and Wasserstein “are attempting to put the blame for their misfortunes on a community they left in 2007.”

Since then, he said, many steps have been taken by the Education Department, the province’s child welfare services and by schools boards to ensure parents of Hasidic children are registering their children and following the law.

“Things are going well,” he said, reminding the court that the Hasidic community is not on trial. “We aren’t here to validate the beliefs or the lifestyles of these people.”

Lowen has testified that when he left the Tash Hasidic community 10 years ago, he spoke little English and no French, had never heard the words “science” or “geography” and had never spoken to a woman who was not a member of his family.

The girls’ schools make more time for secular education, the court has heard, but Wasserstein testified that at the age of 13 it was judged she had enough secular knowledge and she was exempted from the courses to help her mother.

Johnston’s legal argument against the Boisbriand schools is two-pronged. He says the girls’ schools are “illegal” because they lack the necessary licence to provide secular education, and he says the requirement that boys study religion at least 20 hours a week leaves insufficient time for the secular home-schooling they are supposed to receive.

Castonguay noted that recent changes to provincial laws have allowed more government oversight of education in the community and suggested more time is needed to see the results of those legal reforms. He also said he’s seen no evidence the boys have no time in the week for secular courses.

“You seem to want me to set a time limit on religious courses, and I won’t do that,” the judge told Johnston.. “That’s not my role.”

Cantin said he hasn’t seen evidence of illegality in the schools. “I conclude that there aren’t any real and actual difficulties that the court needs to take action on,” he said.

Johnston is scheduled to deliver his reply in court to Cantin and Banon’s closing arguments Thursday.

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