The religious right

Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (also sometimes called the Constitution of Canada) guarantees all Canadians the following:

(a) freedom of conscience and religion;

(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

While there is a great deal of haggling over what this actually means (more on that in a second), at the very minimum it says that any Canadian person is entitled to hold their own private beliefs (whether religious or otherwise), and is allowed to express those beliefs openly without fear of official government infringement. This is the part of the Charter that gives me warm fuzzy feelings, incidentally. Pretty much everything else is good also, but this particular part makes my nature rise.

Personally, I favour this minimum definition – you’re allowed to believe and say anything you like, just so long as you don’t a) break the law in doing so, and/or b) try to forcibly compel others to adopt your beliefs. Other interpretations of the “freedom of religion” clause seem to think that you’re allowed to do pretty much whatever you want as long as you can find a religious justification for doing so. Both interpretations are, strictly speaking, in line with the wording of the Charter; however, the second one is both dangerous and stupid. Dangerous, because pretty much anything can be justified by claiming religious origin, and stupid because it leads to things like this:

A judge has thrown out a legal challenge that claimed Canada’s marijuana laws violate the freedom of religion provisions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The challenge was brought by two Toronto men — Peter Styrsky and Shahrooz Kharaghani — who are reverends in a group called the Church of the Universe… The church uses the drug as a sacrament and argues the law infringes on their freedom of religion rights under the charter.

Trying to claim that the right to religious freedom grants religious adherents freedoms that transcend those of the general populace is absurd. This particular church is obviously a bunch of crazies who think that marijuana is God’s “tree of life” (I am not making that up), but that’s really not that far a step above Rastafari who believe in ganja’s powers to cleanse and refocus the mind. Rastafari isn’t too many steps beyond Orthodox Judaism or anyone who keeps kosher, believing that the milk of a animal cannot be consumed with its meat through some kind of totemic magical properties that make it “unclean” to do so. Orthodox Judaism lies well within the mainstream view of religion, and its dietary restrictions are surely no more absurd than the requirement for Muslim women to cover up, or the Catholic admonishment to abstain from meat on certain days of the week.

Happily, the judge appears to agree with my assessment of where “religious freedom” begins and ends, which is that even the most pious and sincere religious conviction does not trump the law:

“I do not accept that providing cannabis to people in the basement … was a religious act,” she wrote. “They may well believe that providing [marijuana] to others is a good thing to do. That does not, however, transform its distribution into a religious belief or practice.”

This applies in equal measure to all attempts to circumvent the laws and statutes of society in the name of “religious expression”. Christians like to claim persecution when they have to treat LGBT people as though they are full human beings, entitled to the same level of jobs, services and treatment that anyone else is. This ruling speaks to that issue as well – your beliefs are fine so long as you keep them in the comfort of your own head. The second you bring them out into the open and begin contravening the laws of the land, you’re no longer entitled and must obey the same rules as everyone else. The irony is of course lost on the religious that the same rules that prevent them from discriminating against others also protect them from the selfsame discrimination they worry that we secularists are going to inflict upon them.

I think they should relax – the Charter already prohibits the things they’re worried about. Can’t relax? Ask the guys at the Church of the Universe – they might be able to help you out…

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  1. says

    Religious freedom is not always limited by the law, often it’s quite the opposite. Many laws can be considered unconstitutional if they unfairly target a protected right. While not a perfect example, the polygamy law is currently being tested to see whether the protection it claims to hold or the professed beliefs of the Fundamentalist LDSs are more important.

  2. says

    That was very well explained – I’ve never really got my head around the whole “freedom of belief” thing until now.

    The problem is that we have, as a society and as a culture, encouraged people to think that whatever self-justified “beliefs” they come up with are valid. That’s the whole concept of faith.

    We also empower these people through democratic government, which means that we are potentially governed by those who basically think that the sun – and the truth – shines out of their arse, evidence and facts be damned.

    The point is, contravening the laws of the land becomes a fairly moot point when you’re actually *making* the laws of the land. I’m curious how one squares that with the obviously essential need for freedom of thought.

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