Canada Nov. 11, 2017

Faith leaders urge AG to keep worship protections

By Deborah Gyapong

CCCB President Bishop Lionel Gendron testified before the House of Commons Justice Committee on Oct. 30, urging the government to retain Criminal Code protections of clergy and worship services. (Deborah Gyapong / CCN)

OTTAWA (CCN)—An Oct. 31 open letter from Canadian faith leaders urges the Attorney General to keep protections for clergy and worship services in the Criminal Code.

“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,” said the letter to Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, who is also Justice Minister.

The letter was signed by more than 60 faith leaders and groups, including the president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil, Quebec. “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,” said the letter. “The removal of section 176 would send the wrong message in our current climate.”

The letter was signed by several Imams, the World Sikh Organization of Canada, at least one rabbi, and a Buddhist leader in addition to representatives of a number of Christian organizations.

It quoted a June 2017 Statistics Canada report that said 35 per cent of hate-motivated crimes reported in 2015 were motivated by hatred of religion.

Attacks against Muslims were up 61 per cent, while attacks on Catholics have also risen, the letter said. “Attacks against the Jewish population of Canada accounted for 13 per cent of all hate crimes.”

The letter acknowledges the government’s desire to clear up language in the Criminal Code that is “redundant and obsolete.”

“However, other laws that address assault, public disturbances, threats or trespass do not offer the same degree of protection as Section 176,” said the signatories, warning the proposed change would “erode protection for religious freedom in Canada,” contrary to international documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

“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 letter said. “The Criminal Code should not be amended to do otherwise.”

“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,” the letter said. “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,” the letter said.

It noted some have testified before committee concerning the use of the words “clergyman or minister” as referring to only Christian male clergy. The faith leaders suggested amending the section “to make it clear that all religious leaders engaged in officiating a religious service are protected under 176 (1).”

The letter follows testimony before the Justice Committee Oct. 30 by Bishop Gendron and Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto speaking on behalf of the CCCB. Many other religious leaders have also appeared before the committee to argue against Section 176’s removal.