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State and Faith

To Guard Against the Low Limitation of Narrow Narcissims
Beryl P. Wajsman 29 March 2006

“In 1995 the father of Canada’s multiculturalism policy, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, commented that one of the policy’s failures was that instead of making immigrants comfortable in celebrating their diversity within the universality of the Canadian experience, it led them to demand entitlements separating them from full participation and allegiance to the great triumphs of those universalities.”


Salam Elmenyawi, president of the Muslim Council of Montreal, is wrong. The Quebec Human Rights Commission decision in favor of Muslim students’ prayer rooms at the École de technologie supérieure was not a victory for all and certainly not for liberty. If we are to ever build a society that celebrates our common humanity and does not pander to parochial particularities, we can follow no better vision than that of James Madison who wrote over two hundred years ago in the “Federalist Papers” that, “The civil administration shall take no cognizance of religion.” McGill Principal Heather Munroe-Blum understood this well when she courageously asserted the university's status as a secular institution, one with no obligation to provide prayer space on campus when McGill was faced with similar demands.

Freedom of religion has never implied, and should never imply, the elevation of any aspect of religious sacrament to the level of secular right. It is simply not appropriate for the state to validate, encourage or finance faith-based estates. And this should apply to everything from state funding of religious schools to court intervention in the wearing of religious garb.

State submission to special interests will do nothing more than heighten irrational feelings of superiority and strengthen unreasonable commitments to particularity. Rather than encouraging social peace, it will incite further irritation between religious and secular as our legal system struggles to accommodate the inevitable explosions of legislation, regulation and exception.

That every individual has a natural, moral, right to submit to canonical doctrine, undertake religious education or indulge in nonconformist lifestyles is not in question. But on no account should we allow their demands for material support, whether legal or financial, to prevail upon the patrimony of civil society by forcing that society to legitimize separateness and exclusivity in its public law. Catering to exclusive-and exclusivist-communities of interest is an aberration from, and an affront to, all that is best in our dynamic, and continuing, experiment in social democracy.

The tragic failure of courts and commissions raising religious sacrament to the level of secular right lies in their surrender to the screech of special interests. It is a perversion of the traditions of secular western liberalism and a subversion of the Charter of Rights that turned Canada from a statist Parliamentary democracy with all power vested in the executive, into a Constitutional democracy where the sovereignty of the individual was held supreme over any imposition of state or collective dictate.

In 1995 the father of Canada’s multiculturalism policy, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, commented that one of the policy’s failures was that instead of making immigrants comfortable in celebrating their diversity within the universality of the Canadian experience, it led them to demand entitlements separating them from full participation and allegiance to the great triumphs of those universalities.

The triumph of Louis-Joseph Papineau’s victory for full emancipation for all minorities in 1837, twenty years ahead of England; the triumph of Lafontaine-Baldwin’s responsible government in 1856, the first in the British Empire; the triumph of Laurier’s international vision; the triumph of the labor movement’s struggle for dignity and decency from the Winnipeg General strike to Lac Megantic; the triumph of René Levesque’s fidelity to pluralism even in the midst of his fight for Quebec independence; and finally the triumph of Trudeau’s Charter that made the sovereignty of the individual paramount in our political structures.

The Charter upholds no guarantees or special status or affirmative action for any particular group. It seeks to establish a level playing field of equity of just consideration and equality of opportunity for all Canadians based on the protection of all individuals against discrimination as they pursued, to the fullest, their own individual growth and possibilities within the context of a free, secular and democratic society. Just as no prejudices were to be tolerated against personal choice, so no special considerations were to be enshrined to collective demands.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau's purpose with the Charter was to ensure the supremacy of the individual over any forms of discrimination by the state or demands of particularity by a collective, and to protect that supremacy with equal justice for all. Too often this purpose has been twisted by "progressives" who insist that it created new classes of group rights. It was never meant to do that.

In explaining what he meant when he said that the state had no place in the bedrooms of the nation, Trudeau stated that it was not the role of government to rule on questions of personal morals or morality. Either to the negative or to the positive.

As an example, he said that the only valid role for the state in family law is strictly to interpret the "contract" between parties and the rights flowing from that. The basis of contract law as the fundamental construct for the interpretation of relations between citizens has been primordial since Magna Carta. Any demands by citizens to bring faith-based estates, or tribunals, to an equal level in public law should be considered illegitimate.

Decisions, such as the recent Supreme Court “Kirpan” ruling, that raise religious sacraments to secular rights open the floodgates to everything from settled provincial debates against religious tribunals having status in family law issues to the state funding, and teaching, of religious schools and studies that was slowly being phased out. Ontario conservative leader John Tory has already voiced his support of funding for religious schools; Sharia court supporters are starting their clamor again even after rejection of the idea in Quebec and Ontario; and even the Canadian Jewish Congress, traditionally a proponent of classic western liberalism, has applauded the Kirpan decision as a victory for freedom of religion.

Its president said that "...a multicultural democracy like Canada requires that religious practices be accommodated unless there is a compelling reason not to, so long as there is a sincere belief the practice is a requirement of faith." A democracy can be many things. It can be constitutional; it can be parliamentary; it can be republican; but there is no such political construct as a “multicultural” democracy. The phrase is in and of itself oxymoronic because it implies that allegiance to particularist prejudices is morally equivalent to loyalty to universal principles of justice and equity. And as for sincere beliefs, many horrible and violent practices are considered sincere beliefs by adherents to faiths and creeds around the world. A democracy can accommodate many demands, but if it does not have the bold resolve to separate state and faith it will very quickly see the undoing of the freedoms which form the foundation upon which it stands. Canada’s happy triumphant encounters with progress could soon be nothing more than dust in the wind.

And the problem is not only in our country. The vehemence and violence of religious special interest groups in the pursuit of entrenchment of their demands into western legal corpus', and the ancillary reaction of political correctness of governments, has gone so far that Italian Judge Luigi Tosti was recently sentenced to seven months in jail and one year of exclusion from public buildings for refusing to sit in the presence of religious symbols in the courtroom. Instead of banishment, he should be admired for his courage for defending secularism and seeking the complete separation of religion from state. The Italian government owes him and global citizens an apology for its irresponsible action.

In a time of war against fundamentalist terror, it is incumbent upon every government to abolish any law and regulation that breaches the principle of a secular non-religious state. Religion is a private matter and all religiously -inspired notions and references must stay out of all public laws and regulations. Too many have led and bled for this sacrosanct principle to be abandoned in the name of political expediency or moral relativism.

Government's proper role is to protect people from incitement and violence against their personal practices, so long as those practices do not violate the rights of others, and enforce the foundational principles of liberal democracy which are based on separation of church and state; independence of the judiciary; the supremacy of the people's suffrage; and the sovereignty of the liberty of the individual over any corporate or collective demands of the state.

Expanding "rights" over and above these basic principles will only result in contracting them by chipping away at the foundational principle of justice for all under equal law. We need political leadership with the courage to rectify the initially unjust inherent advantages granted to religious denominations, such as funding of schools based on religion, not add to those wrongs for the sake of electoral success.  Any demands by citizens to bring faith-based estates to an equal level in public law should be considered illegitimate in a free society.

If we continue to succumb to the imposition of religious demands, from whichever group they may come from, onto the corpus of our public law, we are in danger of sowing a whirlwind of exclusiveness and intolerance that will compromise the very consequence of this nation. Our noblest aspirations to tolerance and inclusion will be made objects of dangerous derision. And instead of unifying under the great circumstance of human commonalities - which should be the goal of any democratic society - we will be imprisoned by laws and legislation of low limitation of narrow narcissisms.

In 1865, Thomas D'Arcy McGee said that "This Northern Dominion can grow-under one flag and one set of laws-into one great nation. There is no possibility for that greatness--under that same flag and under those same laws--if we succumb to a thousand squabbling particularities." Only with this in mind can we as Canadians ever vindicate the possibilities of our own capacities.



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