Exploring Religious Freedom in Canada Today

The next EFC Webinar is on the horizon on Thursday, June 11. Bruce  J. Clemenger, EFC president, will unpack what religious freedom means in Canada today — and what pastors, church leaders and individual Christians need to know. In this blog, Clemenger explores recent cases of significance in Canada.

By Bruce J. Clemenger

It’s been a busy year so far for religious freedom issues at Canadian courts, including two decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Each of these court decisions gives more definition to how the courts understand religious freedom and the intersection of religion and public life. Two focused specifically on the freedoms of religious communities and the important role communities play in the expression of religion. Screen Shot 2015-06-01 at 12.29.25 PM

The Supreme Court of Nova Scotia strongly affirmed the freedom of religious organizations to maintain their religious identity and serve the public good in its judgment on the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society policy to refuse any law students with degrees from Trinity Western University’s (TWU) proposed law school.

The Barristers’ Society objects to TWU’s Community Covenant, which sets out what it means to work and study in this Christian educational community. TWU students are asked to adhere to a code of behaviour in keeping with the religious vision of life that animates the university. The covenant prohibits sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a man and a woman. Harassment, bullying and disrespectful behaviour for any reason, including sexual orientation, also violate the covenant.

The judge in the case noted there was no evidence TWU graduates would not be properly qualified to practise law, nor that they would be more likely to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation than graduates of other law schools. The TWU Covenant breaks no laws or human rights legislation in B.C., and the judge concluded that learning in a Christian environment is an expression of religious freedom. “Requiring a person to give up that right in order to get his or her professional education recognized is an infringement of religious freedom.”

The judge concluded that learning in a Christian environment is an expression of religious freedom.

The judge also said government or quasi-government bodies such as law societies cannot coerce private institutions to conform to the beliefs of others about sexuality and marriage. He said the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms cannot be used as a “tool in the hands of the state to enforce moral conformity with approved values.” It is not the role of the government, he said, “to create a moral melting pot.”

This court decision affirms that at the heart of a secular society is the freedom of religious communities to exist and flourish, to self-define their own character and ethos. Doing so is a form of religious expression.

This principle of respect for religious communities is echoed in the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent Loyola decision that found it was wrong for Quebec to require a Catholic high school to teach parts of Quebec’s curriculum on religion and ethics from a secular perspective.

The Court said a secular state “does not – and cannot – interfere with the beliefs or practices of a religious group unless they conflict with or harm overriding public interests.” The majority also said: “A secular state respects religious differences … does not seek to extinguish them” and “affirms and recognizes the religious freedom of individuals and their communities.”

A secular society, the way the courts are interpreting it, respects and accommodates religious differences. In this understanding, being secular means being nonsectarian. It is a way of managing religious diversity while being guided by public principles that all can affirm from their respective set of beliefs.

Government bodies violate their mandate when they require religious communities to be themselves secular and adopt secular values. In the cases of TWU and Loyola, the court found government bodies were imposing secularism on Christian institutions.

The EFC intervened in both these cases, and going forward it will be important for groups to continue to be active in the courts and promote religious freedom, especially as our society becomes increasingly secular. In the meantime, the recognition of the important role religious communities play in the lives of people of faith is good news.

Bruce J. Clemenger is president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. This column ran in the most recent Faith Today. Find out about the next EFC webinar on religious freedom here. Subscribe to Faith Today, Canada’s Christian magazine, here


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