Legislating Protection for Faith Spaces

By Andrew Bennett, CARDUS Law program director

Sometimes Parliament works just the way the textbooks say it’s supposed to work. One recent example is in the way the House of Commons justice committee dealt with Bill C-51, which aims to erase “outdated” parts of the Criminal Code. The committee held hearings. Government and opposition MPs listened to and questioned committee witnesses. Then Liberal, Conservative, and NDP MPs responded by making significant changes to this government bill — a rare enough instance of putting partisanship aside, in this case, to buttress religious freedom in Canada by preserving Section 176 of the Criminal Code.

Last summer, Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould introduced Bill C-51 to the Commons. What made her bill controversial was that it would eliminate the special legal protections for religious leaders and religious services that Section 176 contains. That part of the existing law makes it a crime to obstruct religious leaders from performing their religious rites or services. It also makes it a crime to disturb “an assemblage of persons met for religious worship.” Not surprisingly, the move created a lot of concern among religious leaders and Canadians in general.

Thankfully, the justice committee voted in the fall to amend Bill C-51 to save Section 176 from elimination. But, they didn’t leave the section untouched. Instead, they drafted updated language for it, something I previously suggested was a wise option. The amended language would change Section 176 to refer to “officials of religious and spiritual services” instead of the old language about a “clergyman or minister.” The new legal text uses language that is more neutral.

This is a good thing.

It means that both government and opposition understand that religious services and sacred spaces are not the same as any other public gathering or public place. Their distinct treatment in the law is an acknowledgement of their distinct role in Canadian society.

As I’ve argued before, churches, mosques, synagogues, and gurdwaras are not public spaces like any other. Canadians worshipping in those places don’t see those spaces as similar to the hockey arena, the mall, or a park. They have a unique purpose, distinct and different from secular spaces because people gather in them to act upon their deepest metaphysical beliefs and to participate in the transcendent.

A multi-faith coalition of 65 religious leaders, which I was a part of, built upon that argument through an open letter to Wilson-Raybould. We explained why sacred spaces need specific protection in 2017.

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

The coalition included the Canadian Council of Imams Islamic Foundation of Toronto, the Canadian Centre for Ecumenism, the World Sikh Organization of Canada, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and the Toronto Board of Rabbis. It was on the heels of the publishing of this letter that the justice committee unanimously approved the preservation of Section 176.

The House of Commons has now passed the modified Bill C-51, sending it off to the Senate for some sober second thought — and hopefully passage. We’ve witnessed a rare instance of MPs setting aside their partisan differences to cooperate in committee on a very important issue. Government MPs didn’t insist on rubber-stamping the bill. And opposition MPs didn’t insist on obstructing it.

Amazingly, the committee’s action and cooperation came despite Wilson-Raybould’s testimony in favour of leaving the bill as drafted. It’s heartening when MPs respond favourably to Canadians who speak out about an important public policy issue. In doing so, the House of Commons took action to defend religious freedom. Congratulations to all who helped preserve Section 176 of the Criminal Code.