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Andrew Bennett

In June, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould tabled in the House of Commons omnibus legislation to amend the Criminal Code and Department of Justice Act. One of Bill C-51’s provisions should concern Canadians for what it proposes and says about the value we place on religious freedom and our understanding of sacred space.

The bill would amend the Criminal Code and “repeal several obsolete or redundant criminal offences.” Now considered “redundant” by the government is Section 176 of the code, which prohibits obstructing a “clergyman or minister” from “celebrating divine service or performing any other function in connection with his calling” or disturbing “an assemblage of persons met for religious worship.”

This provision essentially acknowledges in law a key element of freedom of religion and conscience: the freedom to worship publicly in peace and security.

Recently, the minister appeared before the House of Commons justice committee to defend the intended abolition of Section 176. She argued that “it is limited to individuals or clergymen or ministers in the Christian faith and it’s not inclusive of other religious leaders.” She added there are “other provisions that will adequately capture all of the activity that potentially could take place.”

Let’s take those arguments in turn.

Firstly, Section 176 makes absolutely no mention of Christianity. To defend the bill on the premise that it does is simply incorrect. If the concern is a lack of specificity or a lack of gender-neutral language, then why not simply amend the section? Why abolish it?

The second argument – that there are other provisions of the Criminal Code that cover religious services, presumably provisions against assault or disturbance of the peace – also fails. By that logic, the Criminal Code could do without all the sections that relate to specific types of assault – i.e. assault with a weapon, aggravated assault or sexual assault – and treat them all under one broad category. We don’t do this, however, because Canadians understand that certain types of assault are graver and merit special provisions and greater punishment.

Section 176 exists because the disturbance of public worship or assaulting ministers while performing their duties is a graver form of disturbance of the peace and assault because of the nature of the sacred and sacred space.

Some of us may argue that sacred spaces, such as churches, mosques, synagogues and gurdwaras, are public spaces like any other. Such a view is severely flawed. Firstly, Canadians worshipping in those places don’t see those spaces as similar to the hockey arena, the mall or a park. They’re for a unique purpose that exists separate from secular spaces. Secondly, our fellow citizens of faith are acting upon their deepest metaphysical beliefs and in participating in the transcendent – the sacred – they are fully themselves.

Sacred space merits protection, as has been affirmed throughout human history, including in the common law and in statute law going back centuries. There are secular parallels. In the great tragedy of Oct. 22, 2014, when Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was shot dead while serving as sentry at the National War Memorial in Ottawa, the country was united in grief and outrage. It was horrific enough for a Canadian solider to be shot while serving in Canada, but to be shot there, on ground sacred to the memory of our war dead, was even more horrific, more scandalous.

Embedded within humans through our experience is a sense of what’s sacred and merits special reverence. Public worship embodies the sacred. This is true for all religious communities, but even more so for those who’ve come to Canada fleeing religious persecution: the Jewish community, Sikhs, Muslims, Middle Eastern Christians and Yazidis.

What message does repealing Section 176 send to these communities? Or to Jewish congregations who remain under threat of anti-Semitic attack? Or to the Islamic community of Sainte-Foy, Que., whose mosque was attacked during worship?

To maintain Section 176 affirms the importance of freedom of religion and conscience. To maintain Section 176 costs nothing.

To repeal Section 176 breeds ill-will, sends the wrong message to people of faith, and diminishes the civility of our common life.

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

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