Religious freedom is making bigger and bigger waves in the stormy seas of Canadian politics of late. It's not just that an Ambassador was appointed in February, although that's a fair hat tip to certain concerned constituencies. There also seems to be a rise in cases, not only legal but also political, which revolve around this ambiguous, oft-debated right. Just when politics abroad are becoming more and more religious, politicians at home are struggling to articulate not only the meaning of reasonable accommodation, but of religious freedom itself.
It is time, therefore, for religious communities to take a hard look at reasonable accommodation in reverse: not just as a "rights" flag to wave from our foxholes, but as a productive push for social and cultural conversation, and accommodation.
Reasonable accommodation is the term that the Bouchard-Taylor commission used in its formal report, Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences in 2007. In Secularism and Freedom of Conscience (2011) Jocelyn Maclure and Charles Taylor reflect further that reasonable accommodation is a dialogical practice—not a paternalistic state dispensing rights, but a process of mutual resonance, of what sorts of beliefs and practices are fit, and indeed which ones aren't. It is true, of course, that not all beliefs and practices can be accommodated, no matter how cosmopolitan a politics may aim to be, because cosmopolitanism itself naturally prefigures certain fundamental commitments.
But a dialogical approach to reasonable accommodation means that religious communities are not beggars at the doorstep of the state, but rather full, legitimate partners with the rest of society in debating and defining religion and its practices. This landscape is less pock-marked by foxholes, and more characterized by conversation.
We have, after all, now reached a stage in Canadian legal and political culture where it is no longer possible to expect religious literacy. Why should political and legal adjudication grant favoured status to an anachronistic, and increasingly unknown body of belief and practice called the religious? The connection, for example, between beliefs (on family, the body, or the meaning and origin of human life) to practice (lifestyle, or public practice) is not only unclear in the absence of religious literacy, it may appear draconian and offensive. Further, the idea that ritual and practice are not merely exogenous to or derivative of belief, but actively produce belief, is at odds with the understanding of the human person as typically rendered by legal and political culture.
This is the rule of the day: the religious as an essentially private concern of conscience, whose integrity to practice or vocation is frankly bizarre or totalitarian. The religious as integrally public, as necessarily embodied, necessarily vocational, runs against the grain of received secularism. These are assumptions and questions that needs serious and sustained conversation.
None of this should detract from the real and important work that religious freedom advocates do every day in the court room to define and defend the rights of persons and communities to make ultimate confessions about the nature of reality, and the practices that make those confessions possible. But it should render a picture of reasonable accommodation in reverse, as more than the responsibility of lawyers and politicians.
Religious freedom is not an invitation to lock the doors, throw up the flag of discrimination, and go about our collective business. No strategy will more surely demonstrate the ghettoized peril of religious rights than adversarial retrenchment—and no strategy will more surely guarantee the disemboweling of religious freedom, as its advocates await a coming storm of secularism. That storm will surely come and sweep the country clean absent a re-engaged, dialogical, public debate on freedom of religion or belief, led by its most passionate advocates. Reasonable accommodation in reverse puts the ball back in religion's court.
So you say your religion matters not just in private, but in important, constructive, public ways?