Submission to: The Canadian Heritage Committee
Regarding: Systemic and social discrimination against atheists in Canada.
Whereas: The Committee on Canadian Heritage is studying religious discrimination in Canada,
the International Humanist and Ethical Union (www.iheu.org) has identified Canada as a nation that systemically discriminates against atheists,
social discrimination against atheists also exists, often at the behest of religions,
We submit that: Consideration of religious discrimination against atheists, both systemic and social, as described in this document should be considered by the committee in any discussion of religious discrimination.
To that end, we submit that the committee should hear from a representative of the secular humanist community in addition to the religious leaders who have already appeared before the committee.
Submitted by: Doug Thomas, President, Secular Connexion Séculière
Date: September 29, 2017
Secular Connexion Séculière (SCS) is a national organization that advocates for humanist rights, particularly the right to freedom from religion in Canada as defined by the Supreme Court of Canada (Big M Drugs v. The Crown, 1984). Its president, Doug Thomas, is an unpaid lobbyist registered with the Office of the Commissioner of Lobbying of Canada.
Systemic discrimination is defined as discrimination under the laws or regulations of a country. The International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) is recognized by the United Nations Human Rights Councils. It publishes an annual Freedom of Thought Report that rates 194 countries based on their treatment of atheists in law. The ratings are “Free and Equal,” Mostly Satisfactory,” “Systemic Discrimination,” “Severe Discrimination,” and “Grave Violations.” Information in this submission is from the December, 2016 Freedom of Thought Report. Canada is rated as a country with systemic discrimination against atheists based on laws noted in this submission.
The chart below shows four assessment areas and the three rating categories applicable to Canada.
Constitution and Government
Family, Community, Society, Religious Courts, and Tribunals
Freedom of Expression,
Preferential treatment is given to a religion or religion in general.
Legal or constitutional provisions exclude non-religious views from freedom of belief
State-funding of religious institutions or salaries or discriminatory tax exemptions
There is state funding of at least some religious schools.
Religious schools have powers to discriminate in admissions or employment.
Discriminatory prominence is given to religious bodies, traditions, or leaders
Religious groups control some public or social services.
Criticism of religion is restricted by law or a de facto blasphemy law is in effect
Official symbolic deference to religions
Anomalous discrimination by local or provincial authorities, or overseas territories
State-funded schools offer religious instructions with no secular or humanist alternative but it is optional
Some concerns about political or media freedoms not specific to the non-religious
Concerns that secular authorities interfere in specifically religious freedoms.
Free and Equal
No religious tribunals of concern, secular groups operate freely, individuals are not persecuted by the state.
Social discrimination is more difficult to identify unless there are blatant attacks on individuals that lead to investigation and, or prosecution by the authorities. However, such discrimination does exist in Canada and it is often a result of religious belief, or in some cases, at the behest of religions.Systemic Discrimination
Constitution and Government
Some of the information explained in this section could refer to any and all of the sections under the Constitution and Government Category. For brevity in this submission, they are all included under,
“Preferential treatment is given to a religion or religion in general.” (IHEU)
While the Supreme Court of Canada has pointed out that Clause 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Fundamental Rights and Freedoms, with its inclusion of “freedom of conscience and religion,” equally guarantees the right to “freedom from religion,” there are still some Canadian laws that do not support freedom from religion.
We submit that these laws constitute state support for discrimination against atheists either through preferential treatment or exclusion from state-sponsored societal benefits.
Symbolic Claims for the Supremacy of God
The recognition of the supremacy of God is included in the preamble of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (“Whereas Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law”)
The National Anthems Act of 1980 makes O Canada our official national anthem with religious sentiments embedded in both official languages making it impossible for atheists to sing it without hypocrisy and making if a clear denial of the right to freedom from religion when it is played at official events, or over school public address systems.
The offending words are: “God keep our land, glorious and free.” in English
“et il sait porter la croix” (is able to carry the cross),
“et ta valeur trempé de foie” (your honour is imbued with faith)
A non-theist version is available at: http://www.secularconnexion.ca/a-national-anthem-for-everyone/
Preferential treatment of religions is evident in the following laws:
1. Regulations for charitable status as administered by the Charities Directorate contain preferential treatment for religions:
a) religions are required only to promote their religious beliefs to obtain charitable status, without any further requirement, but secular humanist organizations must identify and commit to three community actions which must be approved by the Directorate before charitable status is granted,
b) religions are automatically allowed to have a building fund as a charity while secular humanist groups must apply on a case-by-case basis with no guarantee that such a fund will be allowed,
2. Under the Income Tax Act, religious clergy are allowed to exclude any residential benefits given to them by a congregation from their income, while no other citizens, including secular humanist officiants, are allowed this when they are given accommodation as a part of their remuneration. This is preferred treatment of religious clergy over secular humanist officiants.
Education and Children’s Rights
1. “There is state funding of at least some religious schools.”
Section 93 of the Constitution Act of 1867 as included in the Constitution Act of 1982, permits public funding of religious schools which restrict admission to children of that religion. While some of these school voluntarily admit children who are not of that religion, they are allowed to impose religious studies based on the religion of the school. Some success has been had with opposing this in human rights tribunal, but only on a case by case basis as considerable expense to parents.
2. “Religious schools have powers to discriminate in admissions or employment.”
Religious schools can and do restrict hiring to members of their own religion in spite of the public funding they receive. This inhibits the rights of atheists and reduces the opportunity to pursue their chosen profession, teaching, free from religious inhibition and thereby negatively affects their right to freedom from religion.
3. “State-funded schools offer religious instructions with no secular or humanist alternative, but it is optional”
While the practice of offering optional religious instruction (religious knowledge courses) in publicly-funded schools, religious or not, garners a rating of “Mostly Satisfactory” from the IHEU, we consider that offering religious knowledge courses that do not include the secular humanist philosophy implies that religions are the only providers of ethics and morals. For us, this favours religion and this discriminates against the secular humanist philosophy and is actually systemic discrimination.
Family, Community, Society, Religious Courts, and Tribunals
1. “Discriminatory prominence is given to religious bodies, traditions, or leaders”
Many public ceremonies that should include participation equally from all Canadians, exclude secular humanists from participating equally with believing Canadians. Remembrance Day ceremonies are a prime example. Even though records indicate that atheists have served in Canada’s wars in direct proportion to their presence in the general population (e.g. approx. 11% in WWI, and 15% in WWII) no official representatives of secular humanist philosophy are included and, indeed, the public ceremonies are religious ceremonies rather than secular ceremonies that would include the entire population including the 25% who are atheists.
Over the last decade, The Supreme Court of Canada has made rulings that allow religious people to avoid contractual obligations under the claim that the contract violates their religious tenets. This puts religious beliefs above common law and could lead to abuse because the verification of a sincere belief is subjective.
2. “Religious groups control some public or social services.”
The right of humanist officiants to perform wedding ceremonies is inconsistent across Canada because of religiously biased laws in some provinces. In Ontario, humanist wedding officiants can perform wedding ceremonies freely, but in Québec, the Civil Code of Québec, Section 366 reserves this right “to a limited set of civil officiants and to religious officiants.” Humanists can not perform wedding ceremonies in Québec this denying Québécois humanists the right to a humanist wedding ceremony.
3. The Freedom of Thought Report does note that there are no religious tribunals of concern in Canada, and that secular humanist groups operate freely and individuals are not persecuted by the state.
Freedom of Expression, Advocacy of Humanist Values
1. “Criticism of religion is restricted by law or a de facto ‘blasphemy’ is in effect.”
Section 296 of the CCOC is still in effect with its indefinite definition of ‘blasphemy.” One serious side effect of this section is that countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan, both of which are identified in the Freedom of Thought Report as committing grave violations against atheists and use this as an excuse to continue their persecution of atheists because their anti-blasphemy laws, based on the same British legislation as section 296, contain the same basic rules. This allows them to claim that they are no worse than Canada when they are confronted about their persecution of atheists based on additions they have made to the law.
2. Sections 318 and 319 of the Criminal Code of Canada (CCOC) prohibit hate propaganda and provide for penalties upon conviction of offences under these sections. However, section 319(3b) provides an exemption as follows:
“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.”
Given that many religious texts make derogatory and inflammatory statements against atheists, we submit that such a clause in the CCOC constitutes preferential treatment of religion and supports religious discrimination against atheists.
Social discrimination is more difficult to identify. Nevertheless is it present in Canada and often shows up indirectly.
For example, a few years ago students at the University of British Columbia, arguably among better educated Canadians, were asked in a survey to rank the trustworthiness of different societal groups. Seventy percent of them ranked atheists as less trustworthy than rapists. Where did they get that attitude? Remember, seventy-five percent of Canada’s people are religious, a striking similarity in percentage to the percentage who ranked atheists as they did. One can assume that the atheists who took the survey would not have given the same ranking.
In a survey, atheist university students were asked if they would put their involvement in a university atheist group on their resume as religious students often do. The answer was a unanimous, no. Why?
Student atheist groups are not evil clubs or trouble makers. These students have obviously experienced discrimination before and don’t want to jeopardize their job opportunities.
The Joint Parliamentary Committee on Physician Assisted Dying heard from four religious witnesses, but from none of the secular humanist leaders who asked to appear before the committee. Given that committee members choose the witnesses, and that most parliamentarians are religious (probably in greater proportion than the general population) the bias is built in. Indeed, this committee has decided to follow the same method of selecting witnesses and at the writing of this report had already heard from two religious leaders, but no secular humanists.
At a recent multi-cultural festival, a local secular humanist group had a booth and among other things asked people who made derogatory remarks about atheists if they had made negative comments about any of the religious groups there. None of the antagonists said they did. Why did they feel comfortable attacking the secular humanists philosophy? Because we were atheists.
Social discrimination in Canada, whether it is racially or religiously motivated is a serious problem that can be best ameliorated through recognition that it occurs and through continued pressure from society that such behaviour is not acceptable. Since social discrimination against atheists is primarily motivated by religious sentiments, pressure must be put on religious organizations to educate their followers against such discrimination.