Thursday, April 16, 2015

Saguenay, or Freedom of Religion and Belief

I've not had the chance to review the recent Supreme Court decision regarding prayer before city council meetings, but you can find a copy of it here. Like most legal decisions, I'd suspect that the devil, as it were, is in the details. Reporting on it has been generally vague, but you can find more news coverage: here, here, and here. Some of the coverage (all of which basically says the same thing and little of which reviews the details of the decision), makes this decision out to be significant. I am not at all sure. It is significant and vitally important for some people. For instance, those who see organized religion as a serious problem and a pressing threat to their freedoms will be, I think, very happy with this ruling. Conversely, those looking to find some way to maintain Christianity's historically privileged position in Canadian society will view this decision with chagrin. I ultimately suspect this ruling may not be  quite as significant as people think it is, or that its importance is largely symbolic, but I'm going to hedge my bet. I'm going to argue that this ruling is both remarkably important and not really that important at all. I want to discuss it because I think it fits well with the general narrative I have been trying to work out in this series of blogs about what I'm calling a "post-Christian Canada," or the evolving relationship between Christianity and the Canadian state and civil society.  The burden of this blog is to explain these perspectives by setting them in the context of this historical transition.

Why is this ruling not that significant? Significant might not be the right word. Obviously, the SCC thought this issue was legally and constitutionally important, or they would not have heard the appeal. And, to the individual who brought the original case forward and the Quebec Secularism Society, this ruling can be construed as nothing short of a victory. The message is pretty clear: local governments cannot force citizens or elected representatives to participate in a prayer that relates specifically to one religious perspective or another before a meeting. Doing so, discriminates against those who do not hold to that religious view or who hold no religious views at all. In short, forcing prayer on government or people creates an entrance requirement, as it were, the burden of which falls unevenly across the population. As a result, town and city councils cannot include specific opening (or, one assumes, closing) prayers as part of their agenda. This ruling, as one of the stories I've noted above suggests, is not simply about religion but about "freedom from" religion; that is: it is not the state's business to sustain or support or maintain one religion to the exclusion of others.  More pointedly and more exactly: the state must respect the rights of those who do not subscribe to any religion and a failure to do so is *not* constitutionally acceptable. According to news stories, a number of other municipalities are examining their open ceremonies, as it were, as are at least two provinces.

There is something more in this ruling as well. The City of Saguenay, or their mayor, tried to use a particular defence in order to preserver prayer before its council meetings. The defence went something like this: even if there is some manner of discrimination in reciting a specific and evidently Christian prayer, while making evidently Christian symbols (the cross) does seem to favour one religious perspective over others, this is OK because Christianity is part of Canada's history and heritage. Thus, even if there might be problems with regard to freedom of conscience, specific rituals that reflect religious practices can be maintained if they are part of national, religion, ethnic, or linguistic heritage.

This is an interesting argument that deserves a fuller treatment than it has so far been accorded. It is interesting in that it smack of the same stuff that the so-called "secular charter" (ironically) was made of. Those supporting the secular charter in Quebec suggested that Christianity would be exempt from its requirements because (a) Christian symbols can be worn rather ... what small-ly --  and not in a disruptive way and hence are not the overt threat to secular values as is, say, veiling for some Islamic women, and (b) at least some Christian symbols are exempt from the secular charter because they are part of heritage. Their importance, in other words, is not religious but historical. This being the case, they do not pose -- in themselves -- a threat to freedom of conscience or belief because they are about our fidelity to the past; not to a specific spirituality.

There might be something to this argument. I'd need to think about for a long time or someone reading this could explain it to me in the comments sections. But, it has always struck me as so much semantics. Why? Two reasons: (1) symbols never convey a singular meaning. One cannot read a cross *just* as a symbol of the past. It is always already a symbol of Christianity and to deny that reading is engage in a shockingly simplistic level of analysis. (2) It is reading the symbol (in this case a cross) from a specific perspective. Exactly what we might call this perspective can be a matter of debate. I'd say it is read from a semi-Christian moderately secularish-type of perspective. From the perspective of a person who may or may not attend church but who does self-identify as a Christian even if that self-identification is complicated by other things and honoured in the breach. The precise details of what I am saying are beside the point because the real point is this: it does not read the cross as a symbol of heritage from a non-Christian perspective. From a non-Christian perspective (even those perspectives that respect diversity, etc.), the cross is a Christian symbols that marks space in a specific way. The defence of religion as heritage, in this sense, tried to avoid reading the cross (or, other Christian symbols such as prayer) from non-Christian perspectives in order to assert their validity as heritage but not religion. This type of reading is both partial and antithetical to a diverse society.

And, this gets us, I think, to the real importance of this ruling. In effect, it says "no, you cannot use this type of logic to smuggle Christianity in through the back door." And, you have to read symbols from the perspectives of people other than those in whose name the symbol speaks. This ruling was about prayer and not about the cross (and, this is so for interesting legal reasons). But, the point is the same. Said differently, the courts have closed off one line of argumentation that some people had used to try to maintain the symbolic privileged presence of Christianity in the Canadian public sphere.

Should we be glad about this? That is a question I will leave off for another day because there are still other important issues that we should address. If this is the historic importance of this ruling, we should also be clear about what this ruling does not do. I'll likely take the time to go over some picky legal details at another time (because those picky legal details are important). Let me focus on the big issues. First, and most importantly, this ruling does not actually bring with it any significant changes in practice other than for a few towns and cities. It is part of a transition -- part of an historic process -- and not the cause of the process in itself. It attracts attention (and, rightly so) because it is a SCC ruling, but it does not either advance or detract from the right to practice one's religion or lack thereof. I suspect, in fact, that few people will notice the difference. I honestly don't know whether or not Sackville, NB (the town in which I live) opens its meetings with a prayer. Private institutions (clubs, churches, the range of social services supported by churches, universities) can maintain whatever rituals they want to maintain. That will be an internal debate. Schools in NB at least don't have prayer; few business that I know do; nor are families affected in their daily devotionals (or, lack thereof). Important public rituals -- say, Remembrance Day -- will, I am certain -- remain unaffected as well.

Said differently, this ruling makes an important statement but it is a statement that will have a limited affect on most people's lived experiences. Why? Because religious freedom is already so widespread and, by-and-large uncontested, in Canadian society. I suspect that most of those people listening to the town prayer in Saguenay were ignoring it anyway (it was, after all, what, only 20 or 30 seconds long?).  I can, for instance, and I suspect you can too, go about my entire day and not really notice anything religious. Leaving aside the things I do myself, my workplace observes no religious rites, we have no special ceremonies before meals or meetings, no one comes in my door to get me to prayer, there are no dietary restrictions, no symbolic hand washing, nothing. I know we use a Christian calendar but how many people really worry about that or even know about it?

I noticed that I often end blogs by saying "there is more to say on this subject" and this ruling is not an exception. In the interests of length, however, I'll end here and pen a bit more another day. Let me summarize, this ruling is important and not. It does very, very little (as far as I can tell) in changing the overall balance between church, state, and civil society in contemporary Canada. But, it does cut off one line of in the defence of Christianity: the Christianity as heritage argument. It will change the practice of open council meetings at some towns and cities in Canada but I suspect few will notice those changes and they might, as I'll intimate later, be less "out there" than we might think.
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