Update on Parliamentary Petition e-382 calling for the elimnation of Canada’s anti-blasphemy law

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).

Despite the generally accepted view that Canada’s blasphemy law is an outdated and dead law that would never be successful if used today, this is still an historic situation. The federal government has reviewed archaic legislation and repealed obsolete law before, but this is the first time that the blasphemy law has been clearly identified for attention (that we are aware of).

The government’s response to e-382 may be found on the Parliament of Canada website and states:

The government is committed to maintaining a fair, relevant, and accessible justice system for all Canadians.
In her mandate letter, the Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada has been asked to conduct a broad review of our criminal justice system. The Minister’s overarching goal is to ensure our legislation meets the highest standards of equity, fairness, and respect for the rule of law as well as the Constitution of Canada.
The crime of blasphemous libel, although included in the original Criminal Code of 1892, has not been the subject of a reported legal case since 1935. In 1979, a charge of blasphemous libel was laid in Ontario in a case involving the showing of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, but the charge was stayed.
Blasphemous libel, along with numerous other provisions of the Criminal Code, are presently under review by the Minister and her officials. The Minister looks forward to addressing these provisions in the course of her mandate.

This is an encouraging situation.  Canadian secular humanists, and indeed any Canadian concerned to reduce faith-based tension and victimization in Canada and around the world must encourage our Parliamentarians to finally repeal this bill.  Whether the repeal is part of an omnibus bill or a dedicated legislative action – the blasphemy law must go!

Blasphemy laws are an attempt to protect faith-based concepts and ideas from criticism.  But this approach underlies much of the tension, victimization and violence throughout the world.  When rational discussion of ideas is considered a criminal act, the results often include alienation, isolation, frustration and a desire to strike back.

We must also remember that Canada’s position on human rights issues around the world is greatly respected.  When Canada opposes blasphemy laws here in Canada and around the world, an important message of inclusion, stability and good governance is sent.
It seems that the Canadian government, on this issue, is open to taking steps to advance an open Canadian society.  CFIC members are encouraged to educate their local Members of Parliament about the importance of this step. Consider using the CFIC website for further information regarding this bad law. Simply type “blasphemy, Canada” into your search engine!
 
Did You Know?
CFIC began our strategies to oppose Canada’s blasphemous libel law in 2014!  Change – even on an issue as self-evident as opposition to blasphemy laws is a long term commitment.  Please support CFIC with a donation today.  We are Canada’s leading secular humanist organization.

 

CFIC Discourse #5: Blasphemy

As Christmas approaches, there is one item on my wish list that requires a response from the federal government. Last December Ali Ehsassi sponsored a petition to repeal Section 296 of the criminal code, which allows prosecution for blasphemous libel. Although it has not recently been enforced and we have the Charter of Rights protecting freedom of expression, we need to set an example for countries that not only have these laws, but also enforce them.

All countries should respect religion, but should not have laws on their books that allow people to use religion to oppress different faiths or the absence of faith. In the United States there are laws on the books that make it illegal for an atheist to hold political office. They make no attempt to enforce them, but with the crazy direction they have taken in the last election, I’m not holding my breath for the future.

This year we opened our arms to Muslim refugees who were brutalized by religious zealotry on their way out and stigmatized as terrorists on the way in. Let us tell them that they can freely practice their faith in Canada because we value freedom of expression and modern civilization does not condone laws that penalize religious discussion.

This letter by CFIC member Russell Pangborn was recently published in the Toronto Star

UPDATE:  See also Purging Criminal Code of defunct ‘zombie laws’ no simple task, which cites the anti-blasphemy law among a list of targets for legal reform.

CONTRE L’HOMOPHOBIE RELIGIEUSE

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.

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Ontario Pre-Budget Consultations

The Ontario provincial government is holding public budget consultations until the end of the month.  This provides an opportunity for Ontario secularists to voice our concerns about the waste of public funds used to support the Catholic school system, and the violation of human rights that privileges members of one particular religion over those of other religions or no religion.

At this writing, there are 65 budget ideas under the category of Catholic schools.   You can vote online (login required).  Of course, the Catholic schools have mobilized their side to downvote the proposals to remove their privilege, so let’s see if we can get the “nones” out to defend the principal of equality under secularism.

 

Blasphemy Laws Still Exist in the United States

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.”

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 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.

For example, Massachusetts, General Laws, Chapter 272, Section 36:

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.

Blasphemy laws:

  1. Restrict freedom of speech
  2. Infringe on the right to freedom of religion
  3. Often lead to human rights violations during enforcement
  4. Can incite mass violence
  5. 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.