On January 30, 2017 the federal government tabled a response to an electronic Parliamentary petition (E-382) calling for the repeal of Canada’s blasphemous libel law (Criminal Code Section 296).
CFI Canada has been a long-time supporter of LGBT rights, and a participant in pride parades across the nation. This year, CFI Montreal marched in the Montréal Pride/Fierté Montréal parade. Our message, “CONTRE L’HOMOPHOBIE RELIGIEUSE” (STOP FAITH-BASED BIGOTRY), is a reminder that most of the barriers held up against LGBT equality are religiously motivated.
A part of CFIC’s complicated mission(see it at the top of this page) is to provide education and training about secularism. To understand secularism, is to understand the interaction between law and religion. While there are a variety of ways that religion indirectly influences law (such as laws which have the same effect as enforcing a religious perspective on all people in the country), the most direct influence is through blasphemy laws. CFIC encourages an understanding of all blasphemy laws and how they impact their local societies and people around the world. In this article, CFIC examines blasphemy laws in the USA. In 2011 Pew Research Center published a study indicating that 59 countries (30%) still have some form of legislation against blasphemy, apostasy or religious defamation. While nationally the United States has deemed blasphemy laws unconstitutional, some states still have them on the books. In the 1952 case of Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, the U.S. Supreme Court found that
“the state has no legitimate interest in protecting any or all religions from views distasteful to them. . . . It is not the business of government in our nation to suppress real or imagined attacks upon a particular religious doctrine . . . .”
President Obama, in his speech to the U.N. General Assembly, made a statement that “the majority of Americans are Christian, and yet we do not ban blasphemy against our most sacred beliefs.”
It is surprising, after this Supreme Court decision and Obama’s speech, that six states still have laws against blasphemy.
Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming, have laws which reference blasphemy.
Whoever wilfully blasphemes the holy name of God by denying, cursing or contumeliously reproaching God, his creation, government or final judging of the world, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching Jesus Christ or the Holy Ghost, or by cursing or contumeliously reproaching or exposing to contempt and ridicule, the holy word of God contained in the holy scriptures shall be punished by imprisonment in jail for not more than one year or by a fine of not more than three hundred dollars, and may also be bound to good behavior.
It makes one wonder, if these laws are never enforced, why does it matter that they exist? They may rarely be enforced but their existence allows for some cases to be brought forward. A Pennsylvanian filmmaker was turned down in 2007 for a corporate name “I Choose Hell Productions”, based on Pennsylvania’s blasphemy law. States have symbolic power to enforce these laws. It’s a form of moral condemnation as stated by Sarah Barringer Gordon, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Restrict freedom of speech
- Infringe on the right to freedom of religion
- Often lead to human rights violations during enforcement
- Can incite mass violence
- Fail to promote religious harmony which is supposedly the intention
The infamous Danish cartoons became so publicized because of the blasphemy laws attached to them. Raif Badawi faces physical brutality and the death penalty for a blasphemous blog posting. The Charlie Hebdo shooting is mass violence based on perceived blasphemy. There is no proof that blasphemy laws promote harmony, in fact, countries with these laws often have higher levels of religious tension.
Where does the United States stand today on blasphemy laws?
The United States has been fighting for religious freedoms and an end to blasphemy laws abroad, and has offered criticism on the intolerance of other cultures. The credibility of these actions will be seen as questionable until they put an end to the hypocrisy.
Both the American Humanist Association and the Centre for Inquiry (USA) are partners in the International Coalition Against Blasphemy Laws (ICABL); the purpose of which is to remove blasphemy laws wherever they exist.
The American Humanist Association, an organization with a long history of opposing blasphemy laws within the USA, has called for a repeal of blasphemy laws:
“Laws prohibiting blasphemy are a relic of the Middle Ages and are blatantly unconstitutional,” declared Mel Lipman, a constitutional lawyer and president of the American Humanist Association. “Blasphemy is a purely religious offense and hence the sole concern of religious organizations and their own members. By contrast, those people without religion, or who have religious beliefs that don’t condemn blasphemy, shouldn’t be affected.”
CFIC approves the work of AHA and other organizations who educate Americans about blasphemy laws in the USA and around the world. Just as Canadians must direct their gazes to Criminal Code Section 296, so too should the residents of other countries investigate blasphemy regulations which violate the human rights of their citizens. Specifically in the US, this requires investigation of Massachusetts, Michigan, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wyoming, which today still have problematic laws against blasphemy.
This blasphemy update is provided by legal project intern Cassandra Martino with CFIC.
PMB – Section 159 of the Criminal Code of Canada
A Private Member’s Bill (PMB) is useful, even if it is not passed, to bring an issue to the attention of government, Members of Parliament, and the public. This is what NDP MP Craig Scott attempted to do when he introduced PMB C-448 on October 4th 2012. This Bill called for the repeal of section 159 of Canada’s Criminal Code, thus removing the distinction between anal intercourse and other forms of sexual activity. This section of the criminal code may be viewed as the criminalization of one part of gay sexual activity beyond the age of consent – although anal intercourse is not a sexual activity exclusive to gay persons. It is the intent to criminalize homosexual acts that is not only stigmatizing and outdated but unconstitutional.
Section 159 has been found unconstitutional by three courts in Canada: the Court of Appeal for Ontario, Quebec, and Alberta.
In the explanation in the case of R. v. C.M., 1995 before the Court of Appeal for Ontario, Justice Abella stated:
Anyone who is 14 or older, whether married or not, can consent to most forms of non-exploitive sexual conduct without criminal consequences, whereas no one can consent to anal intercourse unless he or she is at least 18 or married. Sexual orientation is an analogous ground of discrimination prohibited under s. 15 of the Charter. Gays and lesbians form a historically disadvantaged group, and s. 159 violates s. 15(1) of the Charter because it arbitrarily disadvantages individuals in that historically disadvantaged group — gay men — by denying to them until they are 18 a choice available at the age of 14 to those who are not gay.
Section 159 is not the only outdated provision in the Criminal Code of Canada. Recent events surrounding international religious violence and cruel blasphemy laws have provided Canadian organizations such as the Centre for Inquiry Canada (CFIC), public attention and outrage about attempts to stifle freedom of expression. The public has begun to critically examine and reject Section 296 of the Criminal Code, which states that “every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years”.
Our Stance at The Centre for Inquiry Canada
The Centre for Inquiry Canada has been instrumental in establishing the International Coalition Against Blasphemy Laws (ICABL) and the End Blasphemy Laws website. As the Blasphemy Project Intern, for CFIC, I have reached out to MP Craig Scott and received the needed support to consider a PMB repealing Section 296. These outdated provisions no longer reflect our modern, diverse, and tolerant society. Not only are both section 296 and 159 unconstitutional, they are not reflective of Canadian values. Unfortunately, Canada is maintaining these outdated ideas by allowing them to remain in the Criminal Code of Canada. If you agree that section 269 should be repealed click here to join our Action List and keep in touch with the CFIC’s End Blasphemy Laws Campaign.
This blasphemy update is provided by legal project intern Cassandra Martino with CFIC.
Helping others is a human trait, as we have evolved to be social animals. After the devastating earthquake in Nepal, the needs are great. The death toll stands at 7500 (at this writing), but continues to rise, and the UN has estimated that 1.4 million people will need food aid.
CFI (US) has activated its SHARE program; for donors in the US, this is an excellent method to ensure that your gift to disaster recovery goes to a secular organization doing important work you care about; CFI Canada is currently evaluating options to establish the SHARE program here n Canada and we expect to make an announcement in the near future.
In the meantime, for those who want to help, here are a few suggestions for making donations to secular organizations:
Canadian Government Gift Matching Program: For donations made by individual Canadians to registered Canadian charities between April 25 and May 25, the Government of Canada will contribute an equivalent amount to the Nepal Earthquake Relief Fund. This matching contribution will support humanitarian, early recovery and reconstruction assistance in Nepal through projects undertaken by Canada’s international humanitarian and non-governmental partners.
- The Humanitarian Coalition includes Care, Oxfam, Plan Canada, and Save the Children
$75 can provide emergency food for 15 days
$112 can provide clean drinking water for 12 families
$220 can provide emergency shelter to a family of 4
- Doctors without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF Canada) is sending eight teams to assist those affected by the earthquake in Nepal.
- The Foundation Beyond Belief’s Humanist Disaster Recovery Drive is currently collecting funds which they will be distributing to local organizations, details to be announced. (Note that donations made through FBB will not be eligible for Canadian tax receipts, and will not attract the matching contributions.)
- CARE is distributing shelter and hygiene kits to survivors in remote areas.
Action of a Friend of the Centre For Inquiry Canada
Jeff Rasley, a friend of CFI Canada (based in the US) sent us this note regarding his action to help the people of Nepal:
Namaste Friends,The Basa Village Foundation USA Inc. has opened a GoFundMe account as a way for those who would like to respond to the pressing and immediate needs in Nepal due to the earthquake. However, we will be prudent in how funds are distributed and remain true to our corporate principles of culturally sensitive development in partnership with the local people who will do the work and own the results of our financial contributions. We have a sister foundation with HQ in Katmandu, Basa Village Foundation Nepal NGO, which is in charge of distribution of funds raised for purchase of needed goods and services. All labor for re-building and construction is provided by villagers without compensation. We do not have paid staff or administrative costs as all our foundation work is through the efforts of our volunteer officers and members.Our main contact in Nepal, Niru Rai, Chairman of BVF-Nepal reports that Basa village has suffered catastrophic damage. (see below) So, the specific goal of this fundraising campaign will be to help re-build Basa and to restore the village school, hydro-electric system, water system, smokeless stoves and the other village infrastructures the BVF-USA has supported. We won’t distribute any funds until we can make a meaningful assessment of needs of the village and, as is our practice, our Board will be guided by our friends in Nepal to determe how we can best help the villagers of Basa.GoFundMe account Link: http://www.gofundme.com/basanepalOr, you can make donations direct to the Foundation.Check payee: Basa Village FoundationMail care of: Jeff Rasley, 6422 Ralston Ave., Indianapolis, IN 46220If any of you belong to an organization that could host a program on Nepal Earthquake Relief, please check with me about it. I and other board members of the BVF-USA will be able to do ”soft fundraisers” to help.Thank you for your consideration.