Canada's Former Ambassador of Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett will be heading up Cardus Law, which is set up to examine the challenges to religious freedom. Register file photo

Cardus launches Cardus Law to address religious freedom concerns

  • January 13, 2017

OTTAWA –The Cardus think tank has launched Cardus Law to examine the challenges to religious freedom.

Ray Pennings, co-founder and executive vice president of Cardus, said Cardus Law will be based on “research collection and putting into the public sphere important data that can inform and shape public discussion.”

Heading up the division is former Ambassador of Religious Freedom Andrew Bennett, who has been serving as a senior fellow at Cardus since the federal government closed the free-standing Office of Religious Freedom last March.

The idea for a legal component has been percolating since Cardus took over the Ottawa-based Centre for Cultural Renewal in 2010, said Pennings. The Centre had a legal publication that examined legal decisions in light of public policy that Cardus continued for a while.  

Three years ago, Cardus convened a legal symposium at Montebello drawing lawyers and academics interested in religious freedom.

With the opportunity to retain Andrew Bennett came a “more focused conversation on what a Cardus Law program would look like,” Pennings said. “What does the rule of law and particularly, the Charter protections of freedom of religion, freedom of conscience, of assembly, freedom of speech, all the freedoms mean in all the challenges of a pluralistic multicultural democracy like Canada?”

“Canada is a very different place than it was 50 years ago,” Pennings said.  

While constitutional principles remain foundational, Cardus Law will examine “the application of those principles in a different context.”

With the abolishing of the Office of Religious Freedom, “the government has a different focus now,” said Pennings.  “That means there’s a vacuum; there’s space and things not happening today.”

“We will actively look at how to constructively fill that space primarily through events and research."

In one of two papers published to mark the launch, Bennett wrote on “religious freedom as a fundamental freedom” and warned of the “increasing pressures on the free exercise of religion in North America.”

“We see it being confused or even equated with freedom of speech or freedom of assembly rather than being understood as a foundational freedom that informs our free speech and encourages our free and public assemblies,” Bennett said. “We also see it being confused with a constrained freedom to worship.”

“At Cardus Law we wish to understand why these trends are emerging and ultimately what effect they are having and could have on our common life,” he said.

The other paper by Faisal Bhabha, an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School of York University, examined how the Supreme Court of Canada has decided key religious freedom cases in recent decades. He described a “trajectory of the court moving from a strong rights articulation to a weak rights application.”

The papers had been delivered in a symposium organized by Cardus Law last December in Toronto.

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