Standing up for religious freedom abroad but not at home

Ottawa’s policy on prison chaplains discriminates against non-Christians.

By: Amira Elghawaby | Toronto Star, March 31, 2013

When it comes to promoting religious freedom, the government could do with a little more fairness right here at home.

Less than a month after the Conservative government officially established the Office for Religious Freedom, a multi-faith flock of Canadians is taking the government to court for violating the very freedoms the government pledges the new office will promote abroad.

In a united front that highlights strong interfaith opposition, Muslim, Wiccan, Buddhist, Sikh and Jewish prisoners and ex-prisoners are now suing the federal government for cutting part-time chaplains, many of whom ministered to prisoners just like them.

The government cut the part-time chaplains to save an estimated $1.3 million. But $5 million was budgeted to promote religious freedom around the world. Where are the government’s priorities?

“Having a chaplain of one’s own faith visit regularly and make a lasting connection helps prisoners feel that they have not been abandoned by society,” reads part of the lawsuit, filed in the B.C. Supreme Court. The claim goes on to argue that the government’s decision to cut all but one non-Christian chaplain contravenes several Charter rights, including the right to practise one’s religion freely, the right to life, liberty and the security of person, and the right to be free from discrimination.

Considering that many Christian prisoners have regular and dependable access to Christian Bible studies, group meetings and a chaplain who can fully minister to their needs, the disadvantage to prisoners of other faith groups is clear. The lawsuit chronicles complaints that promised volunteer chaplaincy visits are too few and unreliable.

The federal government ostensibly wants to serve as a beacon for religious tolerance and diversity abroad but its own record gives rise to some misgivings.

Take Immigration Minister Jason Kenney’s insistence that the small group of Muslim women wearing face veils remove them in order to take the citizenship oath. The minister has not budged on this 2011 directive despite protests that this violates the Charter’s protection of religious freedom and equity before the law. Even the Supreme Court of Canada ruled as much in the recent R v. N.S. case, which involved a Muslim woman’s request that she wear her niqab while testifying. A majority of the court ruled that the Charter protects a woman’s right to wear a face veil in Canadian courtrooms. The ruling laid down specific circumstances when a woman might be required to remove it, essentially only when her right can be shown to impinge someone else’s Charter rights.

Whose constitutional right is a woman violating in a citizenship oath ceremony? Shouldn’t becoming a Canadian mean that one starts to enjoy the rights guaranteed by the Charter? It’s almost certain that another costly constitutional challenge is also on the way with many experts suggesting there’s not much ground for the government to stand on.

Even the government’s own Members of Parliament seem fixated on speaking to a very select segment of Canadians. Just take a look at a recent flyer circulated by Saskatchewan Conservative MP Kelly Block which claims that of the 200 million persecuted minorities in the world, most are Christian. To reinforce this, the flyer includes a quote from MP Pierre Poilievre pledging his support to the persecuted Christian Copts in Egypt during a statement to the House of Commons.

One can be forgiven for wondering whether the multitudes of other faith adherents suffering around the world will get the same kind of attention.

Religious persecution of any group or sect is a violation of human rights which global citizens and governments must fight against and condemn. But our government’s commitment to fairly advocate on behalf of all faith groups is in doubt.

We look to the federal government to protect the constitutional rights of all Canadians, equally and without bias. Only then will there be enough credibility to ask other governments to do the same for their citizens.

Amira Elghawaby is the human rights co-ordinator at the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM).