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Fighting Over GodFighting Over God

Fighting Over God

Janet Epp Buckingham’s new book on Canada’s history of duelling deities

Janet Epp Buckingham
9 minute read

Religion is about that which is deeply held and integrally linked to one's very identity. It inspires strong emotion in its adherents. Religion is both a positive and a negative force in society. On the one hand, religion inspires its followers to many forms of constructive behaviour: obedience to the law, philanthropy, volunteerism and a sense of connection to the community. However, it can also be the source of deep conflict and intolerance; many wars have been fought in the name of God.

Two recent examples show the breadth of the types of conflict religion can cause. In 2010, a controversial Muslim arbitration board in Ontario, which was developed in accordance with Ontario law, was shut down along with all other religious arbitration boards. Muslim women's groups had lobbied against the arbitration board on the basis that Muslim family law is discriminatory against women. But in the minds of many in Ontario, "Muslim law" was synonymous with the form of sharia law in countries such as Saudi Arabia where punishments include stoning and cutting off hands. While these punishments were never going to be part of the Muslim arbitration board, the controversy raised significant concerns about applying religious law in Ontario. Similarly, some issues of accommodation of minority religious groups became so highly charged in Quebec that the Quebec government established a high-powered commission to address "accommodation" of religion and culture. The Bouchard-Taylor commission report commented that, in March 2007, "accommodation had become a social issue on which politicians made almost daily pronouncements." In their 2008 report, Building for the Future: A Time for Reconciliation, Bouchard and Taylor refer to the heated atmosphere and lay blame at the feet of the media.

This is nothing new in Canada as a study of Canadian history shows that religious controversies have often been volatile. The Manitoba schools crisis in the 1890s caused political turmoil in Ottawa for years. Inflammatory broadcasts by a Jehovah's Witness student group in Montreal in the 1920s resulted in the banning of all single-faith radio stations for decades. Pierre Elliott Trudeau claimed that the negative treatment of Jehovah's Witnesses in Quebec in the 1950s inspired his passion for protecting human rights, which became a factor in the development of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Such issues have often been fiercely debated in the media and have involved political and legal action; moreover, they've also been the motivation for many royal commissions.

This book is a survey of political and legal conflicts involving religion in Canada. Religion has been a subject of debate and conflict from the days of the first European settlement to the present day. Three distinct themes are discernible along the historical continuum. The first theme is apparent even before Confederation and reflects religious conflicts along the fault lines of the French Roman Catholic-British Protestant divide. This conflict reflected struggles over national identity; was Canada to become "two nations" or have a fundamentally British character with a Church of England, now Anglican, State religion? Roman Catholicism was core to Quebec identity, while the Orange Order in Ontario and Western Canada fomented virulent anti-Catholicism. While this theme is the first to appear in religious conflicts, conflicts over public funding of Roman Catholic schools continue as a vestige of these earlier clashes.

The second theme relates to the position of religious minorities in Canada. This theme is also apparent before 1867. With British-Canadian identity rooted in Protestant Christianity and French-Quebecois identity embedded in Roman Catholicism, religious minorities tended to be excluded or ignored, including the significant Jewish population in Quebec and immigrants from Asia who were Hindu, Sikh or Buddhist. Attempts were made to annihilate First Nations spiritual beliefs. Following the Second World War, religious minorities such as Jews and Jehovah's Witnesses lobbied hard for human rights legislation, which resulted in protection against discrimination. This legislation, along with secularization in the 1960s, improved the situation of religious minorities, and in 1982, the Charter solidified their position by guaranteeing the right to freedom of religion.

The third theme begins in the 1960s with the rise of secularization in Canada. José Casanova has defined three distinct types of secularization: (1) institutional separation of the State, economy and science from religious control; (2) the decline of religious beliefs and practices; and (3) the privatization of religion. While Canadian society has not become fully secular in any of these categories, there has been a trend away from religion in all three since the 1960s. Since the advent of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982, the focus of the secular government has been to treat all religions as equally as possible. In the early 21st century, challenges relate to how the State can maintain neutrality towards religion and how fully observant religious adherents interact with the secular State. There continue to be ongoing challenges, as well as academic and social debate, on the appropriate relationship between religions and the secular State. The three themes resonate throughout this book as they all remain contemporary issues. However, this volume is not only about the rights enjoyed by religious adherents and religious minorities but also about how these rights have developed. How have religious adherents engaged with the courts and with the political system to enhance their ability to practise their religions? And how have conflicts between different religious adherents or between religious minorities and other minorities been resolved?

Religious conflict does not stand on its own but is frequently part of larger cultural conflicts. Culture, like religion, is part of self-identity. Benjamin Berger argues that religion is a subset of culture. No doubt there are religious subcultures in Canada. Yet religion and culture are also distinct. When one is discussing the early religious conflicts in Canadian history, however, one must bear in mind that Roman Catholicism was mainly identified with Canada's francophone population and Protestantism was identified with Canada's anglophone population. The Manitoba schools crisis was, therefore, about far more than merely whether Catholic students could have publicly funded schools in their own religion; it was about whether Canada would be a bilingual country west of Ontario. Sir John A. Macdonald talked about French and English as separate races and, indeed, religious conflicts sometimes have undertones of racism. Anti- Semitism has elements of both racial and religious intolerance. Likewise, recent Muslim and Sikh immigrants from non-European countries have faced, and hence have litigated, religious discrimination, which contains a very real racial, rather than religious, intolerance. It is not always easy to separate religious conflict from racial conflict.

One challenge in any discussion of religion and religious practices is that there is a wide variety of beliefs and practices within any religious community. Some religious adherents more fully observe the practices and tenets of the faith than others of the same faith. One Christian might go to church on Sunday before going to work while another will use the full day to observe the Sabbath and thus refuse to work on Sunday. One Sikh man will remove his turban to wear a motorcycle helmet while another believes it violates his religion to remove his turban. Generally, those who are most observant will seek accommodation. And because those who are less observant do not ask for the same accommodation, there is pressure on those who are more observant to accept a less observant form of practice. This may put pressure on religious communities to change their practices to make it easier for adherents to "fit in" to society.

Charles Taylor, in his book A Secular Age, makes a plea for resolving religious conflicts through dialogue rather than through politics or the courts. That opinion has much merit. History shows that the courts in particular are a blunt instrument for resolving disputes. As Ole Riis notes, "A court verdict may answer the grievance, but it hardly paves the way for coexistence." As well, reading through a sample of the legal cases reveals quickly how much judges flounder when faced with religious issues. Justice LeBel, in the age of maturing of the Charter, reflects this sentiment on the interpretation of religious freedom in a 2009 case involving a religious minority requesting an exemption from the law requiring a photograph for a driver's licence: "The present appeal illustrates enduring difficulties in respect of its interpretation and application. Perhaps courts will never be able to explain in a complete and satisfactory manner the meaning of religion for the purposes of the Charter."

While one can argue that conflict arising from religion is no different than any other, it does differ in the depth of emotion and commitment that it engages. In centuries past, and even now across the globe, religious adherents have been willing to die and face persecution, torture and jail rather than deny their faith. In Canada, many have been willing to challenge the State for the right to practise their religion. As Richard Moon observes, "Religious commitments are often deeply rooted and cannot be discarded or revised without significant disruption to the individual's world view and self-understanding." These disputes, therefore, can engage whole religious communities with passion.

Canada has long been a nation of religious diversity, including First Nations' religions, the Roman Catholicism of French and Irish immigrants, various forms of Protestant Christianity of United Empire Loyalists and European immigrants, and the Buddhism, Sikhism and Hinduism of Asian workers and later immigrants. Intolerance towards minority religious groups became evident before the First World War. During the First World War, some religious minorities that practise pacifism had their right to conscientious objection denied. Religious minorities that publicly criticized the dominant faith also found themselves restricted, particularly Jehovah's Witnesses in Quebec. These restrictions were part of the impetus, along with a strong Jewish lobby, for the development of human rights codes to protect against discrimination. They also gave rise to the 1960 Bill of Rights, which has since been replaced by the Charter as the legal tool of choice to secure religious freedom. Legal precedents have created a strong human rights culture to protect minority religions. The Supreme Court of Canada summarized its approach in a 2005 case: "The protection of freedom of religion afforded by s. 2(a) of the Charter is broad and jealously guarded in our Charter jurisprudence."

The 1960s and following decades saw the roots of secularism take hold. Individualism replaced a sense of community, and religious communities lost their place of significance in society. Religions began to struggle to find new ways of relating to society and to each other. While the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms gives strong protection for religious freedom, it has chiefly protected individual religious practices. At the same time, legal challenges under the Charter removed religion from the public square, thereby privatizing religion. Many religious adherents have felt alienated by rapid changes in society that appear to exclude religious morality. Legal challenges such as the Chamberlain case have shown how far the pendulum has swung away from religion being a dominant force in society. The Bouchard-Taylor report in 2008 detailed public religious disputes in Quebec over a broad range of issues from Christmas trees to the wearing of the Muslim hijab. While disputes are often related to very specific incidents or practices, the deeper issue is understanding "the other": How does this practice relate to religion? How important is it to the daily life of religious adherents? It appears that many, if not most, people in society do not understand the nature of religious beliefs and practices and assume that adherents are free to pick and choose their beliefs individually from a smorgasbord of possibilities. While individual practices indeed vary within a religion, such variation does not make them any less valid or valuable to the religious adherent.

This book addresses the development of religious rights thematically rather than historically. This introductory chapter has outlined the religious context as well as the development of legal protections for religious freedom in Canada. The book covers both the public place of religion in society as well as protection of private religious practices. Public expression of religion includes education, broadcasting and freedom of expression. Protection of private religious practices includes regulation of religious institutions and accommodation of religious practices in employment and family relationships. Often there is crossover between categories. For example, a teacher was prohibited from teaching on the basis of his anti-Semitic writings, which gave rise to legal issues relating to employment, education and freedom of expression.

[The book also assesses] the place of religion in Canadian society with some anticipation of future conflicts. Having legal protection for religious freedom and from discrimination on the basis of religion is not a panacea for religious conflict. Issues relating to the place of religion in the public square and accommodation of religious practices in the private sphere continue to garner media headlines. As religious adherents with a wide variety of religious practices seek to find their place in a Canadian society that seems to be reluctant to publicly include religion, public institutions may find it increasingly difficult to exhibit traditional Canadian tolerance and equality. As the rather inflammatory media publicity around Muslim arbitration boards in Ontario and "reasonable accommodation" in Quebec demonstrated, Canadians need to find ways of living together and accommodating each other to ensure a just and peaceful society, one that truly respects religious freedom.

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