Freedom of religion and the public sphere

How Canadians should see it

February 17, 2010

By Justin Jalea
Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership

Justin Jalea

CALGARY, AB, Feb. 17, 2010/ — Some countries are in danger of going too far in enforcing the division of church and state. While the separation of religion from the state makes sense in matters concerning public policy and law, it doesn’t follow that we need rid the public sphere of religious symbols or expression, such as crucifixes on churches and minarets on mosques. Our shared public institutions – laws, courts, policing and so on – must be free of religion, but our shared public space – streets, schools and offices – need not be.

A religiously neutral state – one that is not based on any particular religious view – is essential in a highly diverse society such as Canada. If the state is to fairly accommodate religious diversity without showing undue favoritism, how could it be otherwise? Essential liberal democratic values such as fairness and equality would obviously be violated if the state were to give preferential treatment to one religion over another in matters of law and policy. 

But secular space does not have to be anti-religious.  It is a mistake to think that it need be devoid of all religion and religious expression. Exorcising religion and religious expression from public life goes too far in trying to preserve secular space.

French belief in private religious expression

Not all democracies see it this way, as recent events in France demonstrate. A French parliamentary commission recommended a ban on the burqa – the full face and body covering worn by some Muslim women – in public institutions, including schools, hospitals, public transport and government offices.  There is apparently much support in France for the view that persons of faith should, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy has put it, “practise their religion with humble discretion”, i.e., only behind closed doors.

But whatever is leading the majority in France and other European countries to try to strip religion and its symbols of expression from public space, there is no need for Canada to go in the same direction.  Indeed, if Canadians take freedom of religion seriously, then generous protection for freedom of religious expression is essential here.

Freedom of religion requires that the state remain as neutral and as minimally involved as possible in matters of religion. Individual liberties, including freedom of association and assembly, must be maintained in order for persons and communities of faith to have the freedom to practice and worship as they see fit.

Public religious expression is vital

However, meaningful freedom of religion requires more than just the possibility of expressing one’s religion in private. In the famed 1985 Big M Drug Mart case, then Chief Justice Dickson noted that freedom of religion in Canada includes “the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses [and] the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal…” This means that people must be able to profess their religious views openly in public about matters that are morally important to them, and as their religions proscribe. This not only includes abortion, euthanasia, or, simply, salvation, it also extends to the wearing of religious symbols such as crosses, kirpans (Sikh daggers) and burqas as an outward expression of one’s faith. 

And anyway what is so frightening about public expressions of religiosity?  For example, as a non-religious person should I be threatened by the sight of a Christian church bearing a cross?  No. Am I threatened by a pastor who preaches publicly?  No, so long as he does not disturb the peace, or somehow forces me to listen. 

In Canada, our religion-neutral state must accommodate religious expression in the public sphere. Freedom of religion – including the right to be free from religion – is a precious and foundational right in any humanely governed society.  And there is no genuine freedom of religion if we can’t publicly express religious convictions, including atheistic convictions that deny the significance of religion. 

We shouldn’t attempt to deter religion and religious expression in secular space, lest freedom of religion lose all meaning.

Channels: The Calgary Beacon, February 17, the Prince Rupert Daily News, February 18, the Flin Flon Reminder, March 13, Carman Valley Leader, May 14, 2010

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