September 7, 2016
The Honourable Jody Wilson-Raybould
Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada
House of Commons
Canada K1A 0A6
RE: Sections 296 and 319(3)(b) of the Criminal Code of Canada
Dear Minister Wilson-Raybould:
As advocates for secular humanist rights, SCS is concerned in particular about two sections of the Criminal Code of Canada (CCoC) that we feel can impact negatively on the rights of secular humanists to freedom of speech and freedom from religion.
The Blasphemy Libel Section (296) gives religions unneeded protection against free expression about internal religious rules that secular humanists do not follow and often find worthy of comment because of their impact on human rights, particularly in regards to women’s rights to equality and children’s rights to education and protection from abuse – both areas in which we feel that religious rules fail them.
Section 296 states:
(1) Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.
Question of fact
(2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.
(3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.
While section (2) specifies that whether or not blasphemous libel has been committed is a question of fact, the CCoC does not define what is blasphemous leaving the issue up to dictionary and religious definitions. With increasing varieties of religious dogma in Canada, we are concerned that any criticism of human rights violations by religions may result in charges against secular humanists by religious groups. In the least case scenario these charges may result in needless use of court time and hardship for those charged.
While section (3) may appear to provide a ready defence for the accused, it does not seem to provide protection for satire or other use of language that may not fall under the definition of “argument.” It does, in effect, limit the exercise of free speech to comments that follow these guidelines.
We are also concerned about Section 319 (3)(b) that states:
(3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under 319 (2) [Willful promotion of hatred]
(b) if, in good faith, the person expressed or attempted to establish by an argument an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text.
This clause exempts religious writers from prosecution of wilful promotion of hatred when they are able to cite their religious texts as justification either as direct support:
The atheists, as in who deny the creation, as Arama; the wicked, as after explained, as all wicked men are, how wise soever they may be in things natural and civil, yet in religious things, … were envied by the psalmist; (Psalms 73.3, The Bible)
or implied support:
But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.” (Revelation 21.8, The Bible)
for their promotion of hatred.
The specific concern here is that passages from religious texts that attack atheists as immoral and actively promote hatred against them can be used to justify hate literature and even blasphemy charges against individuals who are openly atheist.
In effect, this makes religious texts above the law. Since these texts are by reasonable interpretation often promoters of hate themselves, this is particularly egregious to us as a case of special preference granted by the law to religious apologists.
In the light of human rights as defined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we ask that you work to expunge these clauses from the Criminal Code of Canada as soon as possible.
Doug Thomas, President