When Is Religion a Religion?

Canada’s Rights Laws Continue to Astound

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Atheism is “a creed that needs the same religious protections of Christianity and Islam,” stated a headline in the National Post newspaper on Aug. 27.

Canada’s human rights tribunals and rights charters have certainly provided ample scope for commentary on political correctness and anti-Christian stances in recent years, but the latest decision, which equates atheism with a religion, is indeed astonishing.

The article referred to an Aug. 13 decision by the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario, in relation to a case brought by atheists who protested the policy that allows primary school students to receive copies of the Gideon Bible with parental consent.

For many years free Gideon bibles were offered to students in all of Canada in grade 5. Three years ago atheist Rene Chouinard, a father of two school-age children, asked if he could distribute copies of “Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children.” When he was denied permission to do this he brought a case before the rights tribunal.

The Ontario Human Rights Code, the tribunal explained in its Aug. 22 press release, does not “find that exposure to religion in schools violates rights under the Code.”

The tribunal did, however, decide that atheism has the same rights as a religion. “The decision makes it clear that Code protections against discrimination based on creed can cover persons who are not religious, including atheists,” stated Barbara Hall, Chief Commissioner of the tribunal.

“Protection against discrimination because of religion, in my view, must include protection of the applicants’ belief that there is no deity,” wrote David A. Wright, associate chair of the commission, the National Post article reported.

Atheism, it seems then, is a sort of religious creed or belief system, and should receive the protection of laws governing religious freedom.

Quebec values

The recent decision is not the only item of interest from Canada in these days. Press reports explained that next month the Quebec government will table a “Charter of Quebec Values” in the National Assembly – the legislative body of the province.

According to the reports the charter will ban every form of external religious display by public employees, whether they be teachers, civil servants, or health care workers. So no crucifixes, turbans or headscarves, or any other religious symbol.

“The perception is that removal of public religious symbols will make these institutions more neutral, more fair minded, and that those receiving service will feel less threatened,” Roberta Joustra commented in an article for the Globe and Mail on August 22.

Interfering in this way with religious practices puts the state in the position of not only suppressing religion, but also changing it, she said. “It is something that we would expect to see in Putin’s Russia,” she said, quoting prominent Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, who criticized the proposal.

Some commentators have suggested that the charter won’t see the light of day, given the strong opposition expressed since the news was leaked. The proposal is “preposterous, irresponsible and a blatant violation of one’s freedom of expression and religion,” stated Dan Delmar in the National Post on August 21.

Yet, others point to opinion polls that indicate substantial support for the measure. The minority Parti Québécois government may well have the political support needed to pass the proposed legislation, according to an August 26 article in the Toronto Star newspaper.

“…a ban on religious symbols would violate people’s fundamental freedom of religion, stamping out expressions of religious or cultural difference amongst minorities,” said Cara Zwibel Director of the Canadian Civil Liberties’ Fundamental Freedoms Program, in an opinion showing that it is not just churches or religious organizations that are concerned about the charter.

Public square

Nevertheless, Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said the charter “will be a uniting force for the province,” according to a Radio Canada report on August 26.

“Freedom of religion is a complex and multi-faceted fundamental freedom, which is threatened and becomes the focus of conflict when secularists object to religion or religious people playing any role or having any influence in the public square,” commented bioethicist Margaret Somerville in the Ottawa Citizen on August 22.

The ban on religious symbols in public, she maintained, would not only be anti-democratic, but it would also disenfranchise people with religious beliefs.

Somerville explained that she was asked by the Ottawa Citizen to write an article on the topic of what is the world’s most dangerous idea. On consulting some of her colleagues in the law school they all replied that it was religion.

How can this be the case, she asked, when “For millennia, people have viewed faith as integral to being human — of the essence of our humanness.”

Yet now, at least according to Canada,  the absolute denial of faith – atheism – is to be considered as equivalent to a faith, but any public display of faith is to be prohibited. Welcome to the brave new world of extremist secularism.

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Fr. John Flynn

Australia Bachelor of Arts from the University of New South Wales. Licence in Philosophy from the Pontifical Gregorian University. Bachelor of Arts in Theology from the Queen of the Apostles.

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