Score one for religious freedom

Proposed amendments to Bill C-51 mean MPs understand that religious services and sacred spaces aren’t the same as any other public gathering

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Sometimes Parliament works just the way the textbooks say it’s supposed to. Take for example the way the House of Commons justice committee dealt with Bill C-51, which aims to erase “outdated” parts of the Criminal Code.

The committee held hearings. Government and opposition MPs listened to and questioned those who came to testify. Then Liberal, Conservative and New Democratic MPs responded to the testimony by making a significant change to a government bill. It’s a rare instance of putting partisanship aside, in this case to buttress religious freedom in Canada by preserving Section 176 of the Criminal Code.

Last summer, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould introduced Bill C-51 to the Commons. What made her bill controversial was that it would eliminate the special legal protections for religious leaders and religious services that Section 176 contains. That part of the existing law makes it a crime to obstruct a religious leader from performing their religious rites or services. It also makes it a crime to disturb “an assemblage of persons met for religious worship.”

Not surprisingly, the move created a lot of concern among religious leaders and Canadians in general.

Thankfully, members of the justice committee voted recently to amend Bill C-51 to save Section 176 from elimination. But they didn’t leave the section untouched. Instead, they drafted updated language for it, something I previously suggested was a wise option. The amended language would change Section 176 to refer to “officials of religious and spiritual services” instead of the old language about a “clergyman or minister.” The new legal text, MPs agreed, is more faith-neutral and gender-neutral.

This is a good thing.

It means that both government and opposition understand that religious services and sacred spaces are not the same as any other public gathering or public place. Their distinct treatment in the law is an acknowledgement of their distinct role in Canadian society.

Churches, mosques, synagogues and gurdwaras are not public spaces like any other. Canadians worshipping in there don’t see those spaces as similar to the hockey arena, the mall or a park. They have a unique purpose, distinct and different from secular spaces because people gather in them to act upon their deepest metaphysical beliefs and to participate in the transcendent.

A multi-faith coalition of 65 religious leaders, which I was a part of, built upon that argument through an open letter to Wilson-Raybould. We explained why sacred spaces need specific protection in 2017.

“The removal of Section 176 would send the wrong message in our current climate,” we wrote. “According to a Statistics Canada report released in June 2017, 35 per cent of hate-motivated crimes reported in 2015 were motivated by hatred of religion. Police-reported crimes motivated by hate reported in the Muslim population rose 61 per cent in 2015, with hate crimes also on the increase against Catholics. Crimes against the Jewish population in Canada accounted for 13 per cent of all hate crimes. These statistics are very troubling to all faith communities.”

Our coalition included the Canadian Council of Imams, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto, the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, the World Sikh Organization of Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Toronto Board of Rabbis. It was on the heels of the publishing of our letter that the justice committee unanimously approved the preservation of Section 176.

Hopefully, the government will use its majority in the House of Commons to back the committee’s changes to C-51. I would hope the Senate would follow suit.

We’ve witnessed a rare instance of MPs setting aside their partisan differences to co-operate in committee on a very important issue. Instead of rubber-stamping a government bill, they made a substantive change to it.

Amazingly, the committee’s decision came despite Wilson-Raybould’s testimony in favour of leaving the bill as drafted.

More importantly, MPs proved they were able to listen to Canadians, evaluate an important public policy issue and move to defend religious freedom from a needless assault. For that, they all deserve our thanks.

Andrew Bennett is law program director at the think-tank Cardus.


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