Women wearing the hijab in Bandung, Indonesia, 2011. Photo/courtesy of Haifeez via Flickr [http://bit.ly/2bXqhha]

Speak up on intolerance

  • September 8, 2016

Fall temperatures will empty beaches in southern France and bring a natural end to the burkini furor and ugly confrontations that have triggered a worldwide debate. But the underlying tension won’t be folded away with the beach blankets. And that is unsettling.

We may regard this as a French problem but, really, when an angry mob or preening politicians force Muslim women to remove their full-length beachwear, alarms should sound in Canada and any place that values tolerance and accommodation. At issue is the basic respect for religious freedom.

That respect is steadily eroding as non-religious cultures question why a secular society should make room for even benign public expressions of faith. It is an odd situation. On one hand, society enthusiastically promotes tolerance and accommodation — and rightly so — for a wide range of people and groups that have historically faced ridicule and discrimination. Yet these same societies are becoming less tolerant of religion.

French beaches presented a visible demonstration of this when women were humiliated because their religion prescribes public modesty. How they were mocked, threatened and bullied was shameful. Eventually, some dignity was restored when France’s top court defended the women’s right to cover up. But that sensible ruling is unlikely to be the last word in France, or in Canada.

A similar affront occurred in Canada barely a year ago when a judge scolded a woman for wearing a hijab in court. Her religious headscarf was branded disrespectful, like wearing a hat or sunglasses, and she left the court in tears. That incident occurred as Quebec was debating a proposed “Values Charter” that, although never passed, was intended to ban government workers from wearing conspicuous religious symbols and clothing. And it came as Montreal’s Loyola College was engaged in a Supreme Court challenge (eventually successful) to defend its right to teach religion and ethics from a Catholic perspective.

There has hardly been a day in recent years when someone in Canada was not fighting for their Charter rights of religious freedom. It’s a situation that has prompted REAL Women of Canada to launch a petition calling on Parliament to vigourously protect religious and conscience rights.

REAL Women list several concerns, including the lack of guaranteed protections for physicians and health workers who refuse to participate in assisted suicide; government reluctance to shelter from sanctions faith-based institutions which oppose same-sex marriage; and the disdain shown by some law societies towards Trinity Western University’s proposed law school due to the school’s covenant in support of traditional marriage.

These types of religious expression used to be widely accepted. But no more. The intolerance awash on French beaches has already lapped at  Canadian shores. We remain silent at our peril.

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