Canada must protect religious freedom at home as well as abroad

Janet Epp Buckingham

Janet Epp Buckingham

July 1, 2013

OTTAWA – As Canada defends religious freedom abroad, it must ensure such freedom remains well-defended at home, says constitutional lawyer Janet Epp Buckingham.

"Any country that Canada wants to engage on issues of religious freedom is going to turn around and ask 'How you are treating religious people in your country?'" Buckingham told a panel on religious freedom June 4.

In Canada, an aggressive form of secularism is pushing all religions out of the public square. "Christianity is extremely weak in this country," Buckingham said, noting all religions should stand up against secularism which has set itself up "as a rival religion."

Andrew Bennett, Canada's ambassador for religious freedom, stressed his Office of Religious Freedom has a foreign policy mandate, but he urged Canadians of religious faith not to isolate themselves from the public sphere or to remain silent.

Canada's institutions and system of law are based on Judeo-Christian foundations and our understanding of natural law, Bennett said. "We have a constitution founded on the supremacy of God; that's in the very beginning of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms."

Canadians have a responsibility to understand the constitutional foundation of Canada, her Parliament and legislatures, the courts and to be active in engaging in dialogue with other religious faiths and non-religious people, he said.


"When we start to isolate ourselves, we can't do that. We have to understand the blessings we enjoy here in Canada that many other countries do not have."

Most of the countries he will be engaging in the course of his work involve countries where Christians, Muslims, Hindus and others are being killed because of their faith, he said.

In Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, freedom of religion and conscience is the first one listed, he said.

The Office of Religious Freedom wants to take democratic rights and freedoms and "advance these principles around the world."

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reports one third of the world's countries have high or very high restrictions on freedom of religion, Bennett said. Since some of those countries are very populous, that means 75 per cent of the world's population live where religious freedom is highly restricted or worse.

"Christians in particular are targeted both in terms of social hostility and government targeting more than any other group," Bennett said.

"Religious freedom does not mean just freedom of worship," he said. It means also the freedom to study one's faith, to engage in missionary activity, the freedom to change one's faith and the freedom to hold no religious beliefs.


Buckingham pointed out religion is usually practised in community, and many religions have particular requirements in terms of holy days, dress, diet and other restrictions.

She outlined numerous examples in Canada where religious practices have clashed with modern secularism, including the recent example in Quebec, since reversed, in which Sikh men were forbidden from wearing a head covering while playing in official soccer leagues.