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Defending a Foundational Freedom

Andrew Bennett, Canada’s former Ambassador for Religious Freedom and now Cardus Senior Fellow, argues for the need to recognise the foundational nature of freedom of religion and conscience in our society and its link to our common life.  

Defending a Foundational Freedom January 10, 2017  |  By Andrew Bennett
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If we are to share a common life in Canada, freedom of religion and conscience must be foundational. It is the freedom  that enables us to live fully as we are, and as we are called to be. It bears witness to the truth that  human beings have a metaphysical need to make sense of our world and to encounter God. Beyond the legal framings of religious freedom contained in international human rights covenants is a freedom to contemplate who am I; who am I in relationship to you; who am I in relationship to the created world; and, who am I in relationship to God or , at the level of conscience, to a particular philosophy to which I adhere. The ability to freely, publicly, and privately act upon that metaphysical need is foundational to our democracy, our common life together, and indeed our capacity to recognize and actively embrace the dignity that each one of us bears. Without the guarantee of this freedom we are no less free in our interior life, but when freedom of religion is threatened or ignored our public -  common - living out of our lives of faith can be undermined, sometimes gravely so.

Through Cardus Law, we are giving greater focus and attention to the state of religious freedom in North American society, and Canadian society in particular. It is only through robust defence and exercise of religious freedom, within the context of many other inter-related human rights, that we can advance genuine pluralism. This is pluralism that acknowledges, celebrates, and affirms different beliefs and traditions that bear witness to the beauty and strength of our common life.

Yet, we see increasing pressures on the exercise of religious freedom in North America. We see it being confused or equated with freedom of speech or freedom of assembly rather than as a foundational freedom that informs our free speech and encourages our free and public assemblies. We see it confused with a constrained freedom to worship. 

At Cardus Law we wish to understand why these trends are emerging and ultimately what impact they are having and could have on our common life.

In early December 2016, Cardus Law assembled an august group of academic experts and practitioners of religious freedom at Wycliffe College in the University of Toronto for the Cardus Senior Fellows’ Symposium on Religious Freedom as a Fundamental Freedom. As we gathered we reflected on the question that brought us together: What has changed in the religious freedom landscape in North America that necessitates such a gathering?

From the Cardus perspective, we recognize that there are indeed increasing challenges posed to religious freedom within Canadian and broader North American society. This includes attempts by provincial governments to limit the right of Catholic schools to teach provincial curriculum through the lens of Catholic tradition, as in the case of Loyola High School in Montreal. It includes attempts by professional bodies to deny the freedom of conscience and religion of Catholic and other faithful doctors who refuse to refer for abortions or prescribe artificial contraception and abortifacients. It includes threats to faith-based hospitals and medical facilities that refuse to euthanize patients in the wake of Canada’s new euthanasia law passed this autumn. It also includes attempts by de facto representative bodies to constrain the right of religious institutions of higher education to hire faculty and staff that adhere to faith-based teaching on sexual ethics and marriage, as in a recent situation involving Universities Canada.

In hosting the symposium, we at Cardus wanted to hear and engage a diversity of voices that would be able to deepen our understanding of the origin of religious freedom, its particular anthropology, and how religious freedom exists within multi-cultural and multi-faith societies. We desired to better understand the importance of religious freedom as a foundational human right and the role played by institutions, including the courts and Parliament, and individual citizens in defending and upholding this freedom. Finally, we desired to better comprehend the most significant challenges to the robust exercise of religious freedom in Canada and North America..

In examining the general state of religious freedom in North America, Cardus Law with the very generous support of the Fieldstead Foundation, commissioned a series of four papers that sought to respond to this desire. The four papers sparked considerable debate and discussion with a variety of perspectives offered on whether or not we can indeed refer to religious freedom as being fundamental and/or foundational, and what is the nature of the zeitgeist that appears to threaten such an understanding..

There were several key arguments and observations made by the symposium’s roundtable of experts from the U.S. and Canada.  It was asserted first that those in influential leadership positions have lost touch with the core rationale for religious freedom. The deep basis in human dignity for safeguarding conscience and religious freedoms for all citizens and communities has become viewed as irrelevant or dangerous to many. Indeed I noted in my opening remarks to the Symposium that,

[T]his foundation has become obscured, even for those with distinguished professional and educational backgrounds. We have accepted the post-Enlightenment myth that religion is a purely private matter that has no place outside the home or place of worship. The fruits of our secular formation have helped create our present moment, and we are not able to see that we seculars are the outliers with blind spots not shared by the vast majority of the rest of the world.

One scholar noted that religious freedom has become politicized, narrowed, and privatized.  Others elaborated that religious freedom has been construed in the media, and by its adversaries, as “a zero-sum game that reduces religious freedom to a contest. It positions gay rights claims and sexual freedoms, among others, against religious freedom, conscience rights, and associational freedoms.  Another used a metaphor comparing members of faith communities to long-term tenants being evicted from their house and being told they have no legitimate claim to dwell there, so they must now hire a lawyer and search for the title to justify their existence in a neighbourhood turned hostile.

Several present contrasted a new illiberal liberalism with a different, older understanding of democracy. Previously,  people of all faiths, and those claiming no particular faith, were seen as mutually engaged in shaping public life and public policy, seeking the common good. Religiously motivated actions and convictions were to be exercised and accepted, even if they contended against competing ideas, interests, and beliefs. Indeed, one scholar guarded against prematurely dividing up society into “us” vs. “them” on this issue. It was noted that broad swaths of the public don’t fit into a bipolar framing of “religious advocates” or “antagonists,” even though “we live in a largely religiously illiterate society.”

Believer and unbeliever alike, it was argued, should be concerned to protect the space necessary for the investigation of truth. Furthermore, other fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of speech, press, assembly, received constitutional protection (in the US context) because they were bound up with religious practice in public life. In this sense, religious freedom was both fundamental and foundational for citizens and communities, and integral to the shaping of shared civic and political life.

“Freedom of thought, conscience, and belief,” the round table participants heard, “is the tap root of the tree for all human rights.”

This credo is reflected in magisterial documents such as the Magna Carta. The U.S. Declaration of Independence, and even the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, which invokes “sacred rights.” The presentation questioned how respect for other rights will fare in the future in a “cut-flower culture” if current trends continue to marginalize or redefine religious freedom as inconsequential.

“Religious claims,” one presenter noted, “are the most morally serious claims made by human beings. If we are collectively unwilling to protect those, undoing freedom of belief, why should we expect institutions to respect other important civil rights?”

The symposium did not come to an ironclad conclusion, nor was it intended to.   It was a first step in the launching of Cardus Law as a formal program into Canada’s public space. But it did present a unique opportunity to engage leading experts in the field so as to help guide Cardus Law in its new and emerging work on religious freedom.

It affirmed our conviction that our common life is very much predicated on each of us being able to freely profess and privately and publicly manifest our deepest held beliefs. Through Cardus Law, we look forward to continuing our work with faith communities, religious freedom advocates, the academic community, public institutions, and our fellow citizens to affirm the importance of religious freedom. We aim to accomplish this through supporting next generation research and scholarship, supporting public dialogue, and making effective use of media so as to influence policy makers, business leaders, and young professionals to champion religious freedom as key to a thriving, open, and democratic society.

Topics: Law, Justice, Leadership, Religion
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