For the record, I think Minister Jason Kenney is right in insisting that when taking the oath of citizenship, new Canadians are required to show their faces. He is quoted as saying, "The citizenship oath is a quintessentially public act. It is a public declaration that you are joining the Canadian family and it must be taken freely and openly."
The issue is controversial, of course, due to the practice of certain Muslim women of wearing a niqab or burka in public. While Minister Kenney's edict sounds reasonable, as Peter Stockland noted in this space yesterday, the response of outrage to the announcement also sounds reasonable. Recognizing that freedom of religion is a greatly attacked freedom these days, I am usually inclined to bend over backwards to protect it, but here—in matters as basic to our citizenship as swearing public oaths, establishing identity, or witnessing at a trial—I think the state has a more reasonable argument, to ensure it functions properly. These essential processes in the state's functioning are part and parcel of the very package of freedoms that allow for the freedom of religion, which in my mind does allow for the wearing of religious head coverings on other occasions.
My greater concern, however, comes from the Minister's defence during his announcement indicating since Muslim women do not wear the burka during their participation in the Haj (a religious pilgrimage), that therefore it was not essential for them to do so during citizenship ceremonies. On that issue, I find myself agreeing with Mohammad Fadel, whom the Globe and Mail cited as an expert in Islam and law at the University of Toronto. Fadel said this is irrelevant, noting that religious rituals have their own rules that are different than those that might apply to citizenship ceremonies.
The extent to which wearing the veil is a bona fide religious requirement or simply a cultural practice is one on which I am not qualified to comment. But neither is the state qualified. Wearing a turban, a head covering, or other items is part of various religious traditions. It is not for the state to determine whether the wearing of these is legitimate or not. In fact, given the value we place on religious freedom, the state should go out of its way to accommodate those religious practices where possible.
Yet, the right of freedom of religion is not an absolute right. The state has a duty to protect itself against practices claimed in the name of religion which violate our basic principles. Lines must be drawn. In the process of acquiring citizenship, the state has every right to determine that each person seeking those rights is doing so with integrity.
This is, at root, a process question. The democratic process of conferring citizenship (unlike, for example, the democratic process for conferring a driver's license) requires a visible face for a solemn oath. So, in this instance, and as part of the whole package of citizenship's rights and responsibilities, the right to freedom of religion is subjugated here to the state's democratic process.
This would have been defense enough for Minister Kenney's new rule. There was no need, and indeed no jurisdiction, for a Minister of the Crown to stray into adjudicating bona fide religious requirements.