Saturday, May 01, 2021

Quebec Superior Court rules (mostly) in favour of Bill 21

The article below appeared in the May 2021 edition of the Centre for Inquiry Canada's monthly newsletter, Critical Links.

On April 20, 2021, the Quebec Superior Court released its ruling on the constitutionality of Bill 21, Quebec's "secularism" law, which (among other things) bans the wearing of religious symbols (such as hijabs, yarmulkes, and turbans) for many government employees including lawyers, judges, teachers, and police officers. 

The ruling largely upholds the provisions of Bill 21, with two notable exceptions: The bill would be "inoperative" for English school boards in the province, and restrictions would not apply to sitting Members of the National Assembly. 

In his 240-page decision, Justice Marc-Andre Blanchard found "the evidence undoubtedly shows that the effects of Law 21 will be felt negatively above all by Muslim women". Those targeted by the law are "faced with the following dilemma: either they act according to their [...] beliefs, or they work in the profession of their choice. It is easy to understand that this is a cruel consequence which dehumanizes those targeted." The law imposes significant costs (in terms of rights and freedoms) with a questionable justification: "the denial by Bill 21 of the rights guaranteed by the Charter has severe consequences for the persons concerned. [...] On the other hand, the beneficial effects appear at least tenuous." The judge had harsh words for the National Assembly: "The use by the legislature of the notwithstanding clauses appears excessive, because it is too broad, although legally unassailable in the current state of the law." The government displayed an "indifference toward the rights and liberties of those affected," he wrote.

When applied, the notwithstanding clause exempts legislative compliance with Charter sections 2 ("fundamental freedoms" including freedom of religion and expression) and 7-15 (which enumerate legal and equality rights). However, the notwithstanding clause provides no protection to challenges under section 23 (minority language educational rights). 

Most reactions to the judgment were negative. Supporters of Bill 21 were disappointed that the ruling carved out exceptions, while opponents were upset that the bill will continue to apply in most of the province. Quebec Justice Minister Simon Jolin-Barrette seemed to capture the common sentiment: "Quebec’s laws have to apply to everyone on Quebec’s territory." Or as Premier Fran├žois Legault put it, "I don’t understand why the judge said anglophones in English school boards can have different values than the other Quebecers." On the other hand, the English Montreal School Board said it was "elated" by the decision. 

Quebec has announced its intention to appeal. The case will almost certainly be heard eventually by the Supreme Court of Canada. In the meantime, however, Bill 21 remains in effect for most of the province's teachers, police officers, and other government employees in a position of authority. 

  • "Secularism" has several definitions, and confusion can result if people do not have a common understanding of how it is being used. CFI Canada supports political secularism, defined as government neutrality in matters of religion; that is, the state should neither support nor suppress religious expression. 
  • The author is a native English speaker. The ruling is written in French, and an English translation was not available at the time of publication. Quotations from the ruling are sourced from the English-language media articles linked to above.

Centre for Inquiry Canada publishes the first two reports in its Cost of Religion series

The article below appeared in the May 2021 edition of the Centre for Inquiry Canada's monthly newsletter, Critical Links.

Did you know that Canadians subsidize religious organizations to the tune of billions of dollars every year? The Centre for Inquiry Canada, in its Cost of Religion in Canada series of reports, quantifies the cost of one type of religious institution: charities with the primary purpose of "advancement of religion".

Using information submitted by the charities themselves for their 2018 fiscal year (the most recent full dataset available at the time of writing), CFIC analyzes the favourable treatment religious charities receive with respect to tax credits, various exemptions, and direct subsidies. The first two reports in the Cost of Religion series have now been published. 

The Introductory report defines the scope of the series, describes the benefits of being a registered charity, and provides examples of religious charities from across Canada. 

Some highlights from the Introductory report:

  • Religious charities are free to discriminate based on religious faith in their government-funded charitable efforts.
  • Over 32,000 registered charities in Canada exist primarily to advance religion. 
  • Religious charities in Canada have used their favourable tax treatment to amass over $38,000,000,000 in wealth.

The second report examines the cost of religious charities issuing tax receipts for donations. When Canadians make donations to charities, they receive receipts that can be used for an income tax credit. CFIC looks at donations to organizations that exist primarily (or solely) to advance religion and amongst its findings:

  • Religious charities received donations worth nearly $7.5 billion in 2018.
  • Applying a conservative set of assumptions, this translated to over $3.2 billion in tax credits.
  • There are alternatives to maintaining "advancement of religion" as a valid charitable purpose. 

CFIC will continue to publish additional reports in the coming weeks and months, including a summary of direct government subsidies to religious charities and the tax breaks religious charities enjoy. Bookmark this CFIC page to see the entire series as it's published. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Centre for Inquiry Canada quantifies the cost of religion in Canada

Canada, like most countries, treat charities very favourably, granting them many privileges and tax breaks not available to other organizations. To register as a charity with Canada Revenue Agency, it must declare one of four charitable purposes:

  • Advancement of Education
  • Relief of Poverty
  • Advancement of Religion
  • Other Purposes Beneficial to the Community
The Centre for Inquiry Canada analyzed data about all Canadian charities with a purpose of advancement of religion. The results are being published in a series of reports entitled The Cost of Religion in Canada. The first report (PDF) was published last week; others will follow in the weeks and months to come. 

Among its findings:
  • Over 30,000 organizations that exist to advance religion have been granted registered charitable status in Canada.
  • Religious charities in Canada are overwhelmingly Christian (more than 80%).
  • Over the decades, religious charities have accumulated nearly $48 billion in assets and have a net worth of over $38 billion.
I am one of the lead authors of this report. Please read and let me know what you think.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Secularism in Canada with the Centre for Inquiry Canada

I had the pleasure to reprise my Secularism in Canada presentation for the Centre for Inquiry Canada at the end of January. The presentation and subsequent Q&A session were recorded. The presentation is much the same as the one I gave to the Humanist Association of Toronto last year. If you watch the presentation, let me know your thoughts. I'm happy to answer questions from my readers.

Friday, November 06, 2020

Secularism in Canada with the Humanist Association of Toronto

Last month, the Humanist Association of Toronto invited me to give a presentation to their members, as a representative of (and secularism chair for) the Centre for Inquiry Canada. Overall, the presentation was well received. The Q&A session lasted over an hour but was not recorded. If you have any interest in the state of secularism in Canada, I encourage you to invest 45 minutes and watch. Let me know what you think. 

Thursday, October 29, 2020

Canadian Secular Alliance submission to the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression

The Canadian Commission for Democratic Expression is a project of the Public Policy Forum, which seeks to "study and publish advice on how to prevent and mitigate the negative effects of illegal and other forms of harmful online content on democracy in Canada while encouraging robust democratic debate and dialogue."

The CCDE is focused on five areas of inquiry:

  1. The Scale and Scope of the Challenge in Canada
  2. The Impact on Democracy in Canada
  3. The Role and Responsibilities of Digital Platforms
  4. The Effectiveness of Existing Legal and Regulatory Provisions
  5. The Balance Between Countering Hate and Disinformation and Safeguarding Free Speech

The Canadian Secular Alliance was invited to provide a written submission, based on our contribution to the House of Commons Committee on Justice and Human Rights study on online hate. We were limited to 1,000 words, so our submission focused on the CSA's area of expertise, addressing the fourth and fifth items on the CCDE list, and leaving the other important issues to other organizations. 

Below is the submission of the Canadian Secular Alliance to the Canadian Commission on Democratic Expression:

In June 2019, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights published its "Taking Action to End Online Hate" report. Several witnesses claimed "we must stop people trying to legitimize hate speech using freedom of expression as a disguise to do so." This view is echoed internationally, with organizations such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation equating offending the character of the Prophet Muhammad with hate speech and referring to a cartoon contest as a "provocation on the pretext of so-called principle of freedom of expressions" in its 12th Islamophobia annual report (2019). While bigotry against Muslims (and other faiths) is real, this prejudice is not a valid justification to censor speech, even expression deemed offensive by some.

Religious beliefs are ideas, and should not be treated any differently than any other philosophical doctrine – political, economic, metaphysical, or otherwise. Disputing the ideas in a book should not be considered equivalent to an attack on the people who revere those words. 

The Canadian Secular Alliance's fundamental position is: People deserve protection from harm; ideas do not warrant protection from criticism. This distinction is crucial and it is imperative that these are not conflated. Assaults on religious people must be deterred, prevented, and prosecuted. But criticism of religious tenets, no matter how vitriolic, must be fully permissible.

While legitimate constraints to unfettered speech exist - including libel, impersonation, threats and incitement to violence - any exceptions must be limited, well-defined, and serve the public interest. 

The goal of hate speech laws must be to protect individuals from physical harm. However, they rarely achieve this aim. After studying the issue in many countries, Human Rights Watch stated "there is little connection in practice between draconian hate speech laws and the lessening of ethnic and racial violence or tension." The same conclusion was reached by the European Parliament and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Any proposal that seeks to further limit free expression must pass a high burden of proof in order to counter legitimate concerns about effectiveness, overreach, ambiguity, and selective enforcement.

The key problem with hate speech laws is that hate speech is impossible to define in such a way as to meet the twin goals of targeting a significant portion of unacceptable expression while respecting the principle of free speech. If its scope is very narrow and specific, any new law will have minimal impact on Canadian public discourse. But a broadly worded Act would necessarily encompass much speech protected by section 2(b) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Additionally, in many countries (including established democracies) hate speech laws have often been disproportionately enforced against members of the very minority groups they were designed to protect.

Overly broad hate speech laws also have a non-trivial chilling effect on all public criticism. The Supreme Court has described "hatred" as speech "that is likely to expose" people to "hatred or contempt": "unusually strong and deep-felt emotions of detestation, calumny and vilification"; and "enmity and extreme ill-will [...] which goes beyond mere disdain or dislike." How can a person know whether their strong negative opinion of an idea, person, or group will be considered "disdain" - permissible - or "detestation" - punishable? In a dissenting opinion on the Keegstra case, Supreme Court Justice McLachlin wrote, the "sanction of the criminal law may pose little deterrent to a convinced hate-monger who may welcome the publicity it brings; it may, however, deter the ordinary individual."

Hate speech laws leave three options for those inclined to engage in hateful, discriminatory speech: taking the forbidden expression underground; couching their ideas in more subtle rhetoric to evade punishment; or leaving the message unchanged (or perhaps make it even more provocative) as the speakers seek the publicity that results from prosecution. Perhaps that is why Canada has so rarely invoked its existing hate speech law.

Canada has made progress in recent years. Canada's legislature repealed its blasphemous libel law in December 2018, recognizing that treating religious ideas as a form of thought warranting special protection is detrimental to society. This action was a significant step forward. The majority opinion of the Supreme Court of Canada wrote in 2018 that “Accommodating diverse beliefs and values is a precondition to the secularism and the pluralism that are needed to protect and promote the Charter rights of all Canadians. State neutrality requires that the state neither favour nor hinder any particular belief, and the same holds true for non‑belief. Either way, state neutrality must prevail.” Our country should not retreat from its commitment to humanitarian values that apply equally to all Canadians.

There is still room for improvement regarding hate speech. Canada's Criminal Code currently contains a patently unjust provision that provides preferential treatment to religious individuals. Section 319(3)(b) of the Criminal Code exempts a person, who would otherwise be subject to an indictable offense, if their hate speech is "based on a belief in a religious text". This is a clear violation of the principle of state neutrality in matters of religion. The harm suffered by vulnerable persons and groups is identical whatever inspired the hate monger. The victims of hate speech based on religious belief are generally the same groups hate speech laws are intended to protect. The Canadian Secular Alliance recommends that Canada repeal Section 319, subsection 3(b) of the Criminal Code.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Stab Everyone You Love at Toronto Oasis

After my August presentation about how talk to anti-vaxxers for the Centre for Inquiry Canada, I was asked to give a reprise for the folks at Toronto Oasis. Below is the recorded video from that session on September 27, 2020.

The content of my main address is much the same as it was in August, and is about 30 minutes long. This is followed by a vibrant Q&A session that lasts a bit under an hour.