Public pressure forces government retreat on protection for religious services

After backlash from the public, faith leaders and pro-family groups, a Liberal-dominated committee voted to keep Canada’s only law explicitly protecting religious services and clergy on the books.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government attempted to nix the section from the Criminal Code in Bill C-51, legislation intended to clear allegedly redundant, unconstitutional, or outdated sections from the Criminal Code.

But in its review of Bill C-51, the House of Commons justice committee voted Nov. 8 to keep Section 176 in force. That section outlaws the use of threats or force to stop “a clergyman or minister from celebrating divine service,” and the willful disruption of “an assemblage of persons met for religious worship or for a moral, social or benevolent purpose.”

NDP MP Alistair McGregor (Cowichan-Malahat-Langford) told the committee he’d received “an absolute avalanche” of emails to keep the section, according to the National Post. “I’ve got a pile of letters in my hand right now written to me by children, who obviously feel this is very important to them.”

That sentiment was echoed by Conservative MP and justice critic Rob Nicholson (Niagara Falls), who said his office received 900 emails over the weekend.

The committee vote came days after a gunman killed 26 people in a Baptist church in Texas on Nov. 5.

Nicholson said he was thinking of Section 176 when watching news of the massacre, reported Canadian Press.

The committee voted to update the section’s language to be gender neutral and clearly encompass all faiths, as well as all “religious and spiritual officiants,” CP reported.

Sixty faith leaders signed a letter to Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould objecting to the removal of Section 176.

Wilson-Raybould appeared before the committee to reiterate the government’s rationale for dropping the section, namely that the Criminal Code has other sections outlawing assault, causing a disturbance, and inciting hatred against identifiable groups. Deleting Section 176 would “not in any way undermine Canadians’ ability to practise their religious faith, nor do I expect it to lead to an increase in violence in such situations,” she said.

But the letter, co-authored by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, and the Association for Reformed Political Action, disputed this rationale. “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,” it read. “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.”

Statistics Canada data released in 2017 showed that 35 percent of “hate motivated crimes” in 2015 were “motivated by hatred of religion,” added the letter. “The removal of section 176 would send the wrong message in our current climate.”

CCCB president, Bishop Lionel Gendron and Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins were among religious leaders who presented to the committee in October to argue the same point.

Faisal Mirza, the chair of the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association, reminded the committee that months before January’s fatal shooting at a Quebec City mosque, someone put a pig’s head at the mosque’s door. “We cannot be blind that the current climate of increased incidents of hate, specifically at places of worship, supports that religious leaders may be in need of more, not less, focused protection,” he said.

Evidently, the committee heard.

“I don’t believe that (Section 176 is) clearly obsolete, there have been charges laid in recent times, and I don’t think that it’s clearly redundant,” said Liberal MP Colin Fraser (West Nova). “Given that there is a seeming rise in volatility and level of intolerance that should be completely rejected, I’m persuaded that section 176 should remain in the Code, that it does serve some purpose.”

Committee chair, Liberal MP Anthony Housefather (Mount Royal), echoed this. Section 176, “allowed many religious groups to feel recognized within the Criminal Code, to feel that their services had a special recognition and protection and we didn’t see the value in removing it,” he told Canadian Press. “The last thing I want any religious group to feel is they have less protection than they did before,” he said.

The justice committee’s amendment, however, must still be approved by a vote in the House of Commons. Bill C-51 will then go to the Senate, which could amend it further.

 A longer version of this article originally appeared Nov. 10 at LifeSiteNews and is used with permission.

 

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