Toronto cardinal urges Parliament to keep religious provisions in place

| Deborah Gyapong | November 7, 2017 | 0 Comments

Toronto’s Cardinal Thomas Collins anoints the altar of St. Michael’s Cathedral during a rededication ceremony Sept. 29, 2016. Canada’s proposed Bill C-51 would remove a section of the Criminal Code that currently makes it an indictable offense to threaten or obstruct clergymen or ministers from celebrating services or going about their work. CNS photo/Michael Swan, Catholic Register

Parliament would be sending a “disturbing message” to Canada’s religious community if it eliminates a law that currently makes it an offense to disrupt a religious service, Cardinal Thomas Collins told a parliamentary committee.

“More than ever, we need to legislate protection for religious services taking place,” the Toronto cardinal told the House of Commons Justice Committee.

Speaking by video conference Oct. 30, Cardinal Collins expressed a “grave concern” shared by Canada’s bishops over Bill C-51. It proposes to remove a section of the Criminal Code that currently makes it an indictable offense to threaten or obstruct clergymen or ministers from celebrating services or going about their work.

Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops who attended the Ottawa hearing, told the committee: “We believe attacks on religion are not like other attacks against public safety — they are not only more grave but threaten the essence of democracy itself. … This is because religious freedom is the cornerstone of human rights.”

The government introduced Bill C-51 to remove what it calls redundant and archaic laws covering a range of issues. The laws governing religious services, Section 176 of the Criminal Code, are redundant, the government contends, because those matters are addressed in other laws governing assault, making threats and causing a disturbance, as well as in provisions covering hate speech and hate crimes.

Bishop Gendron said the CCCB is working with Jewish and Muslim faith leaders to lobby in support of retaining Section 176. He called it “a deterrent and educator” concerning threats that faith communities may face.

“If the recent rise of hate crimes and prejudice against religious believers in Canada is any indication of the dangers that lie ahead, the removal of this clear and unequivocal section of the Criminal Code will make it harder to protect millions of Canadians who are active members of their faith communities,” said Bishop Gendron.

He said the existing law expressly protects religious ministers from assault and from obstruction in carrying out their duties. It also protects “the community of faith by ensuring that the exercise of religious freedom is not impeded by acts of violence or threats which are directed against its faith leaders.”

The existing law “covers conduct not otherwise covered” in the Criminal Code, Cardinal Collins said.

“We must recognize that there are ways to willfully disturb a religious service without screaming or shouting. A silent protest, unfurling a banner, blocking a procession, etc., can all prevent communal prayer and worship from taking place,” he said.

“We accept the right of people to peacefully demonstrate” in public places but at the same time “congregations have a right to gather without being impeded.”

Gyapong is Ottawa correspondent for Canadian Catholic News.

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