National Post

Greater protection of religious rights, or appeasemen­t?

- Susan Martinuk National Post Susan Martinuk is a Vancouver- based columnist.

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.


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