The influence of religious lobbies in Canada

Strongly motivated by religious lobbies, recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court invite us to consider the impact of these groups in Canada.

Posted at 10:00 am

Marie-Claude Girard

Marie-Claude Girard
Retired from the Canadian Human Rights Commission

Here are some examples of Canadian policies that appear to be the result of religious lobbying. It is important to get to know them and question their potential impact on democracy and the religious neutrality of the state.

Religious Exception for Hate Propaganda

Paul Martin’s liberal government amended the Criminal Code regarding hate propaganda in 2004 to provide protections for religious speech harmful to a specific group, when done in good faith.⁠ 1. This initiative, which offended many, was not discussed during the election campaign, which suggests that it is the fruit of the religious lobby.

Since then, hate speech has multiplied on social media, including those based on religious texts.

The sermons of Canadian imam Yunus Kathrada condemning homosexuality, Jews, atheists or others, which were widely disseminated on social media, are eloquent examples of this.2.

However, none of the Canadian government’s bills aimed at countering the scourge of hate propaganda suggest repealing this religious exception. Sectarian lobbies appear to be very active in protecting this achievement. Conversely, these pressure groups condemn legitimate criticism of religions, which some consider hate speech. Thus, they are free, in Canada, to speak out hate speech against specific groups, but they also wish to prohibit any criticism of their beliefs.

The federal government’s initiatives to combat online hate must be carefully monitored to ensure that they do not negatively impact free speech and legitimate criticism of religions, which some religious lobbyists abhor.

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Religious exception to the permissibility of vaccination

There is no absolute right. It is the balance between individual rights and freedoms and the collective interest that makes it possible to live in society. Furthermore, our charters recognize that individual rights can be restricted “within reasonable and clearly justified limits in a free and democratic society.”

However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, some religious groups have persuaded decision makers to “supremely” religious freedom to evade health measures aimed at protecting the general well-being of citizens, in the event of an exceptional health emergency. This is how the federal government and many provinces (including Ontario and Alberta) have granted a religious exception to compulsory vaccination, despite the imperatives of protecting public health.

Prayer in the House of Commons

Unlike municipal councils, legislatures and parliament are not bound by Supreme Court decisions. Thus, the Ottawa Parliament is using its parliamentary prerogative to avoid being subject to the 2015 Supreme Court decision banning the recitation of prayer by state officials. It is somewhat similar to Parliament’s use of a clause though prayer is maintained in the House of Commons, despite the principle of state neutrality and respect for the freedom of conscience of members of Parliament. It is very likely that this decision, contrary to the principles of the Charter, was motivated by the influence of religious lobbyists.

The right to an abortion

This is one of the topics on which there is consensus among Canadians, but which runs counter to religious lobbies. The latter works tirelessly with various parties to counteract public approval3.

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For example, after giving assurance that he would not question the right to abortion during his election campaign, Conservative Party leader Stephen Harper, then in the majority, voted in favor of Private Bill C-484, which would have greatly limited it. Access to abortion by recognizing fetuses as complete victims of criminal acts. This law, strongly backed by religious lobbies, happily died on the order paper when Parliament was dissolved in September 2008. One wonders whether some MPs are acting as representatives of their constituents or as subordinate representatives of religious groups that want to impose their values. Following the success of religious lobbyists in the United States, vigilance is also required here in Canada.

These four examples illustrate the impact that the religious lobby can have on Canadian politics. In the United States, by appointing judges, the religious lobby has successfully overturned laws that were democratically voted on. In Canada, the federal government appoints judges to the Supreme Court and provincial and territorial high courts. This is an immense force knowing that these judges, who are not elected, are called upon to decide on relevant social, economic or political questions. The Canadian process for appointing judges is not infallible, it is important to ensure its integrity, in order to respect citizens’ decisions.

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