Greater protection of religious rights, or appeasement?
The Ontario Human Rights Commission ( OHRC) recently attempted to put an end to the controversy over Muslim prayers at schools in the Peel School District. It ruled that it is the responsibility of educators to accommodate the religious needs of their students and, in the present case, that means providing a common time and place for Muslim students to carry out their required prayers “during normal school hours.”
To some, this ends the controversy and anger that had been brewing at public school board meetings. As one school board member reportedly claimed, “religious accommodation is not like unicorns that you do or do not believe in. It is the law.” But the ruling also rep- resents a fundamental shift in the HRC’s typical understanding of religious accommodation and it remains patently unclear as to whether the ruling constitutes a law (or a fair law).
For that reason, some may view the ruling is a one- off concession to a religious minority. In a more positive light, others may consider it to be an initial signal that HRCs may be increasingly willing to underscore the religious rights of all Canadians, whether they be Jews, Christians, Hindus or any other faith.
Thus far, rulings by human rights bodies have been notorious f or commonly subjugating religious rights and freedoms to the rights of other (primarily minority) groups.
For example, in 2010, an Ontario human rights tribunal ruled against Christian Horizons for terminating an employee after she started a same- sex relationship. Like all employees of Christian Horizons, she had initially signed a lifestyles and morals code that specifically banned sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage. In 2006, a B.C. human rights tribunal dismissed a graduate student’s claim of discrimination against her Christian faith. While attending the University of British Columbia, Cynthia Maughan participated in an English class that elected to hold sessions on Sundays. As a Christian, Maughan felt this failed to ac- commodate her faith and her intention to attend church services. Other human rights tribunal or commission decisions have either led directly, or contributed, to the removal of the Lord’s Prayer from classrooms and public events, the dismissal of the term “Christmas” and Christmas trees to mark the celebration of a highly-significant Christian event and a general removal of Christian events and symbols from the public realm.
Given the above, it is easy to be cynical about the present ruling. It can easily be interpreted as a “Christians need not apply” message or an indication of favouritism toward one religion at the expense of another. And if that’s the case, it is inherently wrong. A landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada (2015) termed the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer at a town council meeting as unconstitutional because the “sponsorship of one religious tradition by the state in breach of its duty of neutrality amounts to discrimination against all other such traditions.”
Still, while HRCs have generally ignored protections for Christianity ( the largest faith group in Canada), it is interesting that it has taken a complaint by a religious minority ( Muslims) to compel a human rights commission to create a policy that acknowledges the need to protect religious freedoms in Canada.
Religion is important to the lives of a vast number of people in our country and this ruling will invariably impact those beyond the Muslim faith. As such, the coming months and years will undoubtedly involve attempts to clarify its meaning, including the extent to which it will utilize common sense in determining the legitimacy of various complaints and the degree to which it will protect individuals vs. groups.
At its best, this ruling is a positive indicator that Canada’s human rights bodies are open to the greater protection of religious rights. At its worst, it represents appeasement to a religious minority and a signal that the HRC has no intention of establishing a level playing field for all faiths.
EXTENT TO WHICH IT WILL UTILIZE COMMON SENSE.