Andrew Bennett, Canada's former ambassador for religious freedom and current program director for Cardus law, is one of more than 65 faith leaders from all religious traditions who've written an open letter to Justice Minister Jody Wilson Raybould urging her to amend Bill C-51.

The legislation, currently working its way through the Commons, would drop Criminal Code prohibitions against disrupting a religious service. Bennett and  his co-signatories express grave concern this would be an assault on fundamental protections for religious freedom in Canada. 

"(It) would erode protection for religious freedom in Canada, and would stand in stark contrast to the explicit protection enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights...drafted in recognition of the 20th century having see a correlation between violations of religious freedom and some of the worst violations of human rights ever recorded," the open letter to the justice minister warns.

Convivium reprints the text of the letter below:

October 31, 2017

Re. Bill C)51

Dear Minister,

At a time of growing concern about intolerance toward religious groups in Canada, Parliament’s duty to ensure the protection of faith communities is especially critical. As faith leaders, we are deeply concerned with Bill C-51’s proposed removal of section 176 of the Criminal Code of Canada which provides specific protections for these communities.

The stated intent of Bill C-51 is to remove Criminal Code provisions that are redundant or obsolete. However, other laws that address assault, public disturbance, threats or trespass do not offer the same degree of protection as section 176. Nor do they recognize the unique character and nature of religious gatherings and the unique character of offences directed against religion.

It has been argued before the Justice Committee that the category “clergyman or minister” used in section 176(1) excludes non-Christian religious leaders. Although there appear to be no instances where judges have interpreted 176(1) in this way, we would suggest that the  language be amended to make it clear that all religious leaders engaged in officiating a religious service are protected under 176(1).

Religious freedom has been given explicit and singular protection under the law, and is regarded rightly as a uniquely important and foundational element of our entire human rights system. The removal of section 176 would relegate religious freedom to a secondary consideration, indistinguishable from other concerns involving public safety.

The removal of section 176 would erode protection for religious freedom in Canada, and would stand in stark contrast to the explicit protection enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and Article 18 of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights (UDHR). These international covenants were drafted in recognition of the 20th century having seen a correlation between violations of religious freedom and some of the worst violations of human rights ever recorded. Religious freedom is known as the first  freedom, because where it flourishes, all other freedoms flourish.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, while giving specific protection to freedom of conscience, thought, belief and opinion, also ensures explicit protection of religious freedom under Section 2(a). The Criminal Code should not be amended to do otherwise.

The removal of section 176 would send the wrong message in our current climate. According to a Statistics Canada report released in June 2017, 35% of hate-motivated crimes reported in the Muslim population rose 61% in 2015, with hate crimes also on the increase against Catholics. Crimes against the Jewish population in Canada accounted for 13% of all hate  crimes.  These statistics are very troubling to all faith communities.

A reading from the Torah in a synagogue, a prayer service in a mosque, a song in a Sikh temple, a worship service in a church, or a religious procession in a public space: each of these is a communal event that involves an encounter with the transcendent.

An attack against a religious assembly or the deliberate assault of a religious official outside a house of worship is a different kind of offence from other public disturbances, assaults, threats or incitement to hatred. An offence against a people at worship reverberates through the community and touches every member. An offence against one particular person or community at worship has an impact on all religious adherents.

Section 176 is not obsolete or redundant. In a climate of increasing incidents against faith communities across Canada, and in view of the role of the Criminal Code in serving as a deterrent and educational guide to society, we believe it is essential to maintain the specific protections that section 176 affords to religious gatherings and to those who lead them. Retaining section 176 will ensure that the fundamental right to freedom of religion is protected, and that respect for the religious practices and observances of others remains a recognized Canadian value.

As faith leaders, we urge Parliament to protect the integrity and security of public religious expression, and amend Bill C-51 to retain section 176 of the Criminal Code. Further, we recommend that Parliament amend section 176(1) so as to ensure explicit protection for all religious officials.

Sincerely,

Yusuf Badat, President, The Canadian Council of Imams Islamic Foundation of Toronto

Adriana Bara, PhD, Executive Director Canadian Centre for Ecumenism

Dr. Andrew Bennett Senior Fellow, Cardus, Former Ambassador of Religious Freedom

Steve Berg, Executive Director, Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches

Rodney C. Bergen, President Power to Change Ministries

Denys Blackmore, President/CEO Every Home for Christ Canada

Balpreet Singh Boparai, Legal Counsel World Sikh Organization of Canada

Michael and Caroline Brown, Directors WEC International

Rev. Dr. Robert Bugbee, President Lutheran Church-Canada

Alberto Carbone, Pastor MCI Canada

Bruce J. Clemenger, President, The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada

Rabbi Adam Cutler, President Toronto Board of Rabbis

John Denbok, Executive Director SIM Canada

Tim Dyck, General Secretary Evangelical Mennonite Conference

Roy Eyre, President, Wycliffe Bible Translators of Canada, Inc.

Steve Falkiner, President, Foursquare Gospel Church of Canada

William Fietje, President, Associated Gospel Churches of Canada

The Most Reverend Lionel Gendron, P.S.S. Bishop  of Saint-Jean-Longueuil, President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

Jen Garbin, Regional Minister Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Rev. David Hearn, President, The Christian and Missionary Alliance in Canada

David H. Johnson, PhD, President Providence University College

The Rev. Susan C. Johnson, National Bishop Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada

Wayne Johnson, President & CEO World Relief Canada

Steven Jones, President, Fellowship of Evangelical Baptist Churches in Canada

Asif Khan, National Secretary Public Relations Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama'at Canada

Rev. Brian Kiely, Unitarian Church of Edmonton

Willy Kotiuga, Chairman, Biblica Canada

Dr. Martin Kreplin, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (Moncton)

David Lavigne, Bishop, Evangelical Christian Church in Canada (Christian Disciples)

Tim McCoy Executive Minister, Canadian Baptists of Ontario & Quebec

Gordon McDonald, General Superintendent Pentecostal Holiness Church of Canada

Kevin McKay, President Partners International

Paul McPhail, General Secretary, Independent Assemblies of God International (Canada)

Willard Metzger, Executive Director Mennonite Church Canada

Wesley E. Mills, President Apostolic Church of Canada

Bishop Brian K. Magnus, The United Brethren Church in Canada

Msgr. Philip Renato Miclat, OMHS Apostolic Catholic Church of Canada

Gary Moore, National Director, Grace Communion International Canada

Father Anthony Mourad, St. George and St. Anthony Coptic Orthodox Church

The Rt. Rev. Bruce Myers OGS Anglican Bishop of Quebec

Rev. Zenji Nio, Abbot & Custodian of the Buddha, Panam Buddhist Temple

Lee Nicholas-Patillo, President, Canadian Association for Baptist Freedoms

Michael B. Pawelke, President Briercrest College and Seminary

Pax Christi Toronto, Member of Pax Christi International

Rev. John Pellowe, CEO, Canadian Council of Christian Charities

Rabbi Reuben Poupko, Beth Israel Beth Aaron Congregation, Montreal

Kevin Raugust, President, Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada

Peter Rigby, District Superintendent The Wesleyan Church, Central Canada District

Geri Rodman, President InterEVarsity Christian Fellowship

Rev. Darren Roorda, Director Canadian Ministries, Christian Reformed Church in North America

Rev. Dr. David Schrader, National Pastor , Congregational Christian Churches in Canada

Kevin Schular, Executive Director Baptist General Conference of Canada

André Schutten, HonB.A., LL.B., LL.M. Legal Counsel & Director of Law and Policy Association for Reformed Political Action

Doug Sider, Executive Director Brethren in Christ Canada

Imam Ilyas Sidyot, The Islamic Association of Saskatchewan Saskatoon Inc.

Rev. Dr. Terry Smith, Executive Director Canadian Baptist Ministries

Mike Stone, Executive Director Vision Ministries Canada

Marijke Strong, Regional Synod of Canada Reformed Church in America

Gerry Taillon, National Ministry Leader Canadian National Baptist Convention

Dr. Jamal Taleb, Imam of the Islamic Centre of southwest Ontario

Louis Girard and Shirley Tetreau, Focolare Canada

William Taylor, Executive Director, Evangelical Free Church of Canada

Dr. Jason Van Vliet, Hon.B.A., M.Div., M.Th., Th.D. Principal and Academic Dean, Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary

Rev. David Wells, General Superintendent The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada

Kenneth Wiedrick Canadian Church of God

YURIJ, Metropolitan, Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Canada