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Canada flagged for religious freedom watch list by Ohio lawmakers

By 
  • June 24, 2022

Joining China, North Korea and other authoritarian regimes on the religious freedom watch list is… Canada, or at least it should be included, according to Ohio Republican lawmakers.

State representatives Reggie Stoltzfus and Timothy Ginter earlier this month championed House Resolution 194, an act urging the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom “to consider adding Canada to the Special Watch List of countries where the government engages in violations of religious freedom,” mostly due to pandemic-related restrictions imposed on places of worship.

Canada’s actions, Stoltzfus said, are “very similar to what we see in Communist-controlled China.”

The Republican-controlled assembly officially passed the motion by a 58-29 vote. If the federal agency overseeing the watchlist follows the Ohio lawmakers’ advice, Canada would join a group of nations seen as having “severe” violations of religious liberties.

Stotzfus, before the House Civil Justice Committee, mentioned the incarcerations or church bans of several pastors who staged public worship services in defiance of pandemic public health restrictions for wanting Canada flagged for violating religious freedom. He stated Ohio has a “vested interest in the affairs of Canada” because of their geographical proximity and status as primary trade partner with the U.S.”

“(We) draw attention to the violation of Canada’s stated commitment to religious freedom as expressed in their Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”

Witness testimonies from Canadians were added to the legislative record, including from Grace Baptist Church pastor Michael Thiessen, pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church of Edmonton, who spent 35 days behind bars for ignoring public health orders, and from the Liberty Coalition of Canada. A common refrain from these supporting documents was how quick the federal and provincial governments were to limit or ban in-person attendance at houses of worship for large portions of 2020 and 2021.

Courts in Canada have ruled that pandemic restrictions did not contravene the Charter’s religious freedom guarantee.

Some Canadian civil rights experts were quick to say if Canada were to be censored for religious freedom reasons, the Ohio Republicans picked the wrong issue.

Cara Zwibel, the director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s (CCLA) fundamental freedoms program, said the battle over Bill 21 in Quebec is the true hot-button Canadian religious liberty and freedom of conscience fight.  Quebec’s “secularism bill”  prohibits citizens working in the public service from wearing religious symbols while doing their job. The CCLA is currently fighting Bill 21 in the Quebec Court of Appeal.

“We try to protect what is right equally for everyone and one of the big concerns with Bill 21 in Quebec is that it targets religions where a symbol is an important part of the practice,” said Zwibel. “The majority of religions in that province don’t follow that practice, so it has a disproportionate impact on minorities, particularly minority women. We need to be taking action to ensure the law protects everyone equally.”

Marty Moore, a lawyer for the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (JCCF), agrees that the state of religious freedom in Canada is worrying. But he’s concerned that the wrong politicians are taking notice.

“Some politicians paying attention to the state of religious freedom in Canada is a good sign. The sad thing is that it is not Canadian politicians,” said Moore. “The antagonistic targeting and prosecution of clergy (particularly) in Alberta is unconscionable. The jailing of pastors in isolation, shackling them, is the treatment you expect to find in other countries on the religious freedom watch list.”

Moore adds that this “discriminatory approach” works to “delegitimize religious observance and practice.”

The JCCF continues to engage in religious freedom court cases throughout multiple Canadian provinces to secure rulings that will prevent government or public health bodies from restricting Mass attendance during future epidemics.

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