‘Weapon of rights’ aimed at religions

By  Deborah Gyapong, Canadian Catholic News
  • February 2, 2007
OTTAWA - A prominent Canadian public intellectual has set off alarm bells for suggesting the Catholic Church and other religions that don’t comply with so-called Canadian values should lose their charitable tax status.

Daniel Cere, who heads the McGill University Institute for the Study of Marriage, Law and Culture, sees "troubling features" in the "growing conversation about religious freedom" in Canada, especially in an article in the Fall 2006 edition of the Literary Review of Canada by Janice Gross Stein, a political scientist who directs the University of Toronto's Munk Centre for International Affairs.

Entitled "Living Better Multiculturally," and headlined "Whose values should prevail?" the essay raised a series of questions about multiculturalism and religious freedom, when religions have values that go against what Stein described as Canadian values or Charter of Human Rights and Freedom values.

Focusing on equality for women, she wrote mostly about her own conservative Jewish synagogue and her efforts to change its traditional attitudes towards women. She questioned whether religions like her own should get charitable tax breaks.

"If religious institutions are able to raise funds more easily because governments give a tax benefit to those who contribute, are religious practices against women a matter only for religious law, as is currently the case under Canadian law, which protects freedom of religion, or should the values of the charter and of human rights commissions across Canada have some application when religious institutions are officially recognized and advantaged in fund-raising?" she wrote.

"That's new," Cere said. Five years ago, any mention of charitable status would have been a taboo topic, but now a mainstream public intellectual is talking about using the courts, the "weapon of rights," to pressure religions to conform to so-called Canadian values.

For Stein, it appears the resurgence of religious orthodoxies is problematic.

The Centre for Cultural Renewal's executive director, Iain Benson, describes Stein's attempt "to portray religion as the enemy of ‛equality' or ‛human rights' " as "fallacious and dangerous."

"We need better analysis of what is meant by modus vivendi – how we live together despite disagreement; a subject not dealt with very well by Professor Stein," he said.

Constitutional lawyer Peter Lauwers said Stein's article reveals her as a "convergence liberal."

"Convergence liberalism says that pluralism is an accident that is going to be erased by the flow of time," he said, describing a "brave new world in the future where we all think the same." The other is the modus vivendi approach that seeks to find accommodation and ways for differing beliefs to share the public space with mutual respect and tolerance.

The Stein article, Lauwers said, is advocating the abrogation of freedom of religion as we understand it. 

"Freedom of religion is about creating social space in which religious bodies can be themselves. . . . The role of the state is not to impose its views about religion on anybody," he said.

He warned convergence liberals might also want to see the power of the state used against those religions that advocated traditional marriage or opposed abortion and euthanasia.

One of Canada's foremost charitable tax law experts, Terrance Carter, said he does not believe the church's charitable status is "a current concern." Nor does he see a political will to go after churches' tax status. He said that so far Canada's courts are doing a good job balancing rights, including religious freedom.

However, he urged religious institutions to be vigilant and proactive to protect the erosion of charitable status. "Long term, sure, anything can change."

Carter also warned religions to be vigilant against a narrowing of what "advancement of religion" means. For example, where does the right of a priest come from to speak on his understanding of the sanctity of life, marriage and divorce, same-sex marriage, women in leadership? he asked.

Religious freedom is being narrowed from a group right to an individualistic notion that narrows religious freedom to conscience rights, Cere said. He noted the charter affirms both religious freedom and conscience rights, but that interpretations in the courts are narrowing the understanding of group rights for religions.

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