CCCB President Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil chats with the chair of the House of Commons Justice Committee Liberal MP Anthony Housefather of Mount Royal Quebec Oct. 31. Photo by Deborah Gyapong

Failure to protect religious services sends ‘disturbing message’

  • October 31, 2017
OTTAWA – Parliament would be sending a “disturbing message” to Canada’s religious community if it eliminates a law that currently makes it an offence to disrupt a religious service, Cardinal Thomas Collins told a parliamentary committee.

“More than ever we need to legislate protection for religious services taking place,” the Toronto cardinal told the House of Commons Justice Committee.

Speaking by video conference on Oct. 30, Collins expressed a “grave concern” shared by Canada’s bishops over Bill C-51. It proposes to remove a section of the Criminal Code that makes it an indictable offence to disturb the solemnity of religious services or to threaten or obstruct clergymen or ministers from celebrating services or going about their work

“We believe attacks on religion are not like other attacks against public safety — they are not only more grave but threaten the essence of democracy itself,” said Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. “This is because religious freedom is the cornerstone of human rights.”

The Liberal government introduced Bill C-51 to remove what it calls redundant and archaic laws covering a range of issues. The laws governing religious services (Section 176 of the Criminal Code) are redundant, the government contends, because those matters are addressed in other laws governing assault, making threats and causing a disturbance, as well as in provisions covering hate speech and hate crimes.

Gendron said the CCCB is working with Jewish and Muslim faith leaders to lobby in support of retaining Section 176. He called it “a deterrent and educator” concerning threats which faith communities may face.

“If the recent rise of hate crimes and prejudice against religious believers in Canada is any indication of the dangers that lie ahead, the removal of this clear and unequivocal section of the Criminal Code will make it harder to protect millions of Canadians who are active members of their faith communities,” said Gendron.

He said the existing law expressly protects religious ministers from assault and from obstruction in carrying out their duties. It also protects “the community of faith by ensuring that the exercise of religious freedom is not impeded by acts of violence or threats which are directed against its faith leaders.”

The existing law “covers conduct not otherwise covered” in the Criminal Code, Collins said.

“We must recognize that there are ways to willfully disturb a religious service without screaming or shouting. A silent protest, unfurling a banner, blocking a procession, etc. can all prevent communal prayer and worship from taking place,” he said.

“We accept the right of people to peacefully demonstrate” in public places but at the same time “congregations have a right to gather without being impeded.”

Catholic leaders were joined by several other religious groups objecting to the proposed change.

Among those making presentations Oct. 30 were the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, B’nai Brith Canada, a Jewish human rights group, and the Association of Reformed Political Action (ARPA). They all urged the government to retain the current law.

Lawyer and professor Janet Epp Buckingham, appearing as an individual, said some archaic language in the section, such as the words “clergyman” and “minister,” could be replaced by “religious official” and with words added to show both men and women can fill that role.

“If you’re disrupting a religious service, you are causing a great deal of turmoil to a lot of people,” said Bruce Simpson, a criminal lawyer who accompanied the CCCB delegation. “It doesn’t matter why you’re doing it.

“I think most people know it’s illegal to disrupt a religious service, but if you take it out, maybe they’ll find out it isn’t,” he warned.

The committee will consider amendments to the bill before it is passed by the House of Commons and sent to the Senate.

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