Saturday, April 09, 2011

Don't Walk Your Dog in Swinglow, Saskatchewan

The burning at the stake of 224 Waldensians in France in 1243.
A copper-plate etching by Jan Luyken

Lately, I've been led to think about the meaning of religious freedom by a number of events, starting with a request from the Mennonite Historical Society of Saskatchewan to review Tongue Screws and Testimonies. In keeping with this current preoccupation, I present here some religious-freedom scenarios . . .

1) The Conga Bonga Church in Swinglow, Saskatchewan believes that the god, Conga Bonga, can only be appeased by animal sacrifice, so they have built a huge furnace into which every member throws a beloved pet on the date of the summer solstice, and the smoke rising is a balm to the nostrils of Conga Bonga, and the faithful are protected from dire tragedy for another year.

2) In Bountiful B.C., a fundamentalist Mormon community believes that polygamy is sanctioned by their faith as a legitimate way of life. The leaders are brought to trial on charges of abuse.

3) “In September, 2008, the Province of Quebec changed the religious education curriculum, requiring all students from first grade to the end of high school to take a course each year entitled, Ethics and Religious Culture. The course surveys all religions, treating Christianity on par with all other religions. No religion is permitted to be presented as more desirable than any other. The course is mandatory for all public and private schools. Even religiously based private schools are not permitted to teach a religion course contradicting Ethics and Religious Culture (Quoted from Canadian Council of Christian Charities release of April 5, 2011).”

“CCCC is asking members and other interested parties to pray that the judges of the Supreme Court of Canada make a decision preserving this religious freedom in Canada (ibid).”

It’s quite certain that the definition of “Freedom of Religion” is going to need some pretty significant discussion and debate in Canada in the future. Cooler heads would say that in a multi-cultural democracy, the public institutions shouldn’t favour one religion over another, hence the abandonment of the Lord’s Prayer and Bible readings in public schools makes democratic sense. There are many, however, who still declare that we are a “Christian Nation” and that newcomers ought to adapt . . . so there. You’ve heard the rhetoric.

We’re prone to see issues as having two poles, and only two. You either ban books, or you don't; you favour nuclear energy or you oppose it; you vote on the left, or on the right; you either have free speech or you don’t; either you have freedom of religion or you have tyranny. We don’t do well with nuances, especially on emotional issues.

Take freedom of religion: there’s no likelihood that animal sacrifice will ever be excused in Canada as a facet of religious freedom. If Swinglow, Saskatchewan and it's worship of Conga Bonga actually existed, would the prosecution of animal sacrifice be an infringement on religious freedom? Whether or not polygamy falls under that right or not has yet to be shown. And in the third case above, I’m not sure CCCC has explained it correctly. To my knowledge, separate schools that teach a specific religion will continue to operate under the protection of the Charter, although they may be required to teach the generic course on world religions as a part of a provincial curriculum if the state requires it for graduation, much as they must teach the Biology course even if it includes the theory of evolution.

Like freedom of the press and freedom of speech, freedom of religion is not on a toggle switch – either off or on. By way of comparison, to say one is against the banning of books is absurd. What people who argue on one side or the other of the book-banning question really mean is that they want a more or less liberal policy regarding acceptable literary content. (If the education system were to introduce a neo-NAZI history text into the curriculum, I would be a book-banner, at least until a defensible case for its introduction had been presented. In general, I favour a liberal content policy where material is classified and the choice of its purchase is left to the reader.)

Likewise where the fundamental freedoms are concerned, we shouldn’t allow our debates to boil down to strident defenses of one or the other pole; there is more merit in seeking together the sweet spot, the compromise that allows every citizen to live life in an environment that feels like justice and fairness have been the bases for legislation. That’s what democracy in a secular state means, in the end.

At election time, it seems especially important that we forego clinging to the poles—and risk real dialogue somewhere closer to the middle.

And then, you might well say, we can look down at our feet and realize that hell really has frozen over!

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