The XXI Century has been seriously marked by the issue of Religious Freedom, both in terms of physical persecution and moral and political conflicts in the Western world. This surprises many people who thought that Religion was not going to be an issue anymore in our age. Does is surprise you?
It’s not so surprising to me because this is what I study and have spent my life on. But it also depends on how you characterize things like the return of religion to the public sphere, and so on. But if we think about migration, increased diversity in societies, it means that people who are different, in different ways, come into contact with each other. And of course if we welcome newcomers to our societies they need to feel that they are included, and the way they feel included is to feel equal.
The conflict arises when people maybe don't feel included, don't feel equal, and it emerges naturally when you have increased diversity and increased difference, and maybe not always the mechanisms for resolving that difference or even normalizing it, in some way, whether it’s through ideology or political strategy. For example in Canada we have this notion of multiculturalism, which is also enshrined in our charter of rights, that we have to interpret rights according to the multicultural heritage of Canada, and so it is a kind of broad platform from which we understand difference.
What do you identify as the major religious freedom issues of today?
I am hesitating because people go immediately to the Muslim example, and I'd really prefer not to do that, but it is one that is very present. So for example in Canada we have a case going through the courts of a woman who would like to wear a niqab as she takes her citizenship oath. So this is a case which has caused a great deal of controversy, it’s involved our prime-minister, so it's politically controversial as well as from a juridical standpoint. So this is one example which comes to mind.
Another is a decision which came from the Supreme Court a few weeks ago – and these sorts of examples are not just applicable to Canada – involves the display of religious symbols in the public sphere, as well as prayer before a municipal council meeting. So there is on one hand a rhetoric that we live in a secular society, but on the ground there are all these religious practices which infiltrate day to day life.
The Supreme Court ultimately decided that it was not appropriate to say this prayer, as it was being said, in this city in Quebec, it was a use of state power in an inappropriate way, that the state was not being properly neutral. But the surprising thing about the decision was the response to it, which was all across Canada towns, villages and cities emerged as still saying some version of a prayer, the Lord's prayer, before council meetings, before doing the business of the local council.
This was quite astonishing, but what was troubling was that many of these places said they were going to keep saying the prayer, in a nation that is so called secular. So that is an issue, in other words, how does a majoritarian religion, even in countries which think of themselves as secular, how does it infiltrate daily practices, institutions and so on, and how does that make people who don't belong to those groups feel excluded, or not included, and how does that, in turn, impact on social cohesion. This is a very important issue, how do people feel included and welcome to participate, in their societies, in democratic societies.
A third issue I'd mention is of religious exemption, which is essentially religious people or groups asking to be exempted from practices. For example, a doctor who does not want to give birth control, or facilitate women's reproductive freedom. There are many examples of people requesting these exemptions, and the question then becomes where are the limits on those, and what kind of a patchwork society do we end up with if people can be exempted from these practices.
I think that is a very careful negotiation, because we want people to have their conscience and religious beliefs respected, but we also need people to receive services. So it’s tricky, and it’s delicate, but it’s a conversation that has to be had.
We have seen an enormous increase in tension in the USA. Why?
I think in the USA the constitutional provisions create a situation in which there is a greater willingness to take these matters to the end. In Canada they emerge but perhaps not quite as frequently as in the US, but maybe those are my Canadian rose coloured glasses. Maybe it’s not actually that way at all...
I also think the lines of battle are a bit more hardened in the US than in Canada, we tend to have a tendency to navigate and negotiate a bit more, and be less willing to put our religious beliefs and practices out front, if you will, we are a little more reserved than in the American context. That might be a simplistic answer, but I do think there are differences and there is a greater willingness in the USA to be more confrontational and to frame conflicts from a rights point of view, rather than thinking about negotiation and other solutions.
Recently the NDP in Canada declared that all their candidates were expected to be pro-choice… This is not some fringe radical party, it’s the main opposition party. Is it the pro-life position that has become a fringe position?
I don't know if that is a fair characterization. Again, I think there is a greater reluctance to engage in these kind of confrontations. Until very recently in my home province of New Brunswick the pro-life position was predominant, but it wasn't done through confrontation or publicly visible means, it was more discreet. So the process by which women could access abortions was strictly controlled at a policy and administrative level, which essentially meant that it was very difficult to get facts around who was seeking abortion and who was being denied. And the public rhetoric was that it was an accessible service, and there had been a coalition of Catholic and Evangelical doctors in order to limit, in extreme ways, access to abortion.
Also there was the case of the Christian Law School whose graduates were effectively boycotted from joining the Ontario Law Society, not because of the quality of the teaching, but because of the social and moral values defended by the institution, until a court stepped in to reverse the decision. How do you interpret a case such as this?
That case is actually a very difficult case. Partly because the legal positioning has pushed people into corners, so what happens is that all the people who worked at Trinity Western University were characterized as holding a homophobic stance, which is completely inaccurate.
Few people in the public realize that they have a gay student's club, that there are faculty pressing for a revision of the clause that the university makes people adhere to if they are at Trinity Western, so the problem has become one where people are pushed into corners, harden their positions and rather than try to figure out a way to give them the space to come on board, if you will, or move in the direction that most of Canada has moved to, I think the university has been pushed to take a hardened stance. And the rhetoric has not been in the spirit of working things out and finding a solution.
It goes without saying that most Canadians are opposed to the idea of discrimination on the basis of sexuality, so the question then becomes how to work that out so that certain schools can still be who they are and yet not discriminate, and there has been very little room for working that out. Law doesn't always have the answers for these cases and unfortunately when law becomes involved positions become hardened, rhetoric flies and there is less and less possibility that people can shift, change their minds and work things out.
Another major issue is the conflict between the Catholic Church, and others, and the Obama Administration regarding contraception, abortion and ObamaCare. The court has still not decided. I’m interested in knowing not only which way you think the decision will go, but also why is the Administration taking this so far? Wouldn’t it be easier to grant an exemption to the Church run institutions? It seems to have become ideological…
It’s a good question, and I'm not as familiar with the US context as I am with the Canadian context, but I think there comes a point where... The idea of an exemption means that many people who need a particular kind of care are not receiving it, and I think that goes against good public policy and good caring for your community as a whole, and by community I mean the whole country.
But speaking specifically about women's rights, and thinking of access to women's reproductive health is a huge issue, and that is probably why it has gone as far as it has, and the idea of exemption, if you look at what is happening in the US right now, is very messy. It's extremely messy... There was a controversy a few weeks ago about a pizza shop saying they wouldn't cater to a gay wedding, and there was a huge backlash against that particular statement, so there is a sense in the US that maybe enough is enough and it is time to start thinking about other ways. Always wanting to protect religious freedom, but at the same time saying that there are other things which are important too.
The other day, before the Supreme Court, Obama’s solicitor general admitted that Catholic schools which teach that marriage should be only between a man and a woman might risk losing their tax-exemption status if Gay Marriage becomes federal law. Could this really happen? Could we be headed for a time when Churches and church run institutions are pushed out of the public square?
I think that would be too dramatic a statement, to be quite honest. I don't think that will be the case, but I do think that churches may need to rethink or renegotiate their positions on certain issues. And certainly adoption by same sex couples, same-sex marriage is one of those issues that I think will push that.
Certainly there is the possibility of exemption around some of those cases, so in Canada, for example, clergy can exempt themselves from performing same sex marriages, and I think that is the same in many places where same sex marriage is possible. So I think it is possible that churches might have to think, to renegotiate, but I don't think that churches will ever be completely pushed out of the public sphere.
Are you aware of the religious freedom versus politics issues in Europe at the moment?
Nothing immediate... I use some of the European Court of Human Rights decisions in my own work, I think about some of those cases, so for example I recently mentioned the Lautsi case, about the crucifix on the Italian classroom wall. Some of the cases in Britain I am familiar with.
The interesting thing about the Lautsi case is that some of that language migrated across the Atlantic, into the Canadian setting, into the Saguenay which was just released by the Supreme Court in Canada, so I don't think we can see these issues as belonging just to specific nation states, that they migrate, and they are coming up in surprisingly regular ways across countries. This is why I think it is interesting to think about what is happening in Portugal and Canada, in conversation, one with the other. So for example, the Supreme Court in Canada also ruled recently about whether a Catholic High School in Canada could be exempt from teaching a state course on Ethics and Values, and so thinking about these questions, they may be specific to a certain country, but the broader issues are more general.
There have been issues regarding circumcision and halal and kosher slaughter… As an academic what are your thoughts on these debates? Will they ever appear in North America?
They already do. They haven't been as explosive maybe, as they have been in Europe, but they are certainly on the table. A couple of years ago a colleague of mine organized an event in Quebec which brought together veterinarians and religious people around animal rights issues, essentially.
I think part of the problem is that when people actually sit around a table and talk about these things, in good faith, and are not driven by a media frenzy of coverage which is not always as sensitive as it could be, then what tends to happen is that much of the controversy disappears. So I think that it is unfortunate that we tend to have quick reactions to subjects like these, without paying more attention to detail, like where is circumcision performed? Under what conditions is it allowed, which countries are still allowing it, where, when, how, what does it mean? Of course there is religious circumcision and non-religious circumcision...
One of the things I think we fail to do is ask broader questions about other practices. So for example, one of the issues I have looked at in Canada is so-called “honour killing”. This was a topic of hot discussion in Canada, a few years ago there was a really horrific case, where several young women and their second mother were murdered. And the discussion around honour killing was very pervasive in Canada.
So I insisted we step back and ask bigger questions about that. The conversation was around honour killing as existing only within a specific group, namely Muslims. And I said let’s think about violence against women more generally and think about the pervasiveness of that in our society, and while we are talking about this, if you look at the case law around men who have killed their wives, if you look at the language it’s all about honour, "she deserved it", "she had it coming", "what were people going to think of me?". So if you start to unpack things like that and look for similarities we'll see some similarities which then allow us not to be so smug about ourselves and question our own achievements of equality between men and women, which is presented as something which has already happened.
Then we look at cases, such as university campuses, where there have been problems of violence and sexual assault against women, then we can stop being so smug and start asking are their bigger issues, questions we need to be asking. And I think circumcision might be one of those issues.
During the circumcision debate, the ombudswoman for children in Finland suggested replacing circumcision with a symbolic alternative. Does this demonstrate a lack of religious sensitivity among elites? Is there a divide between political elites in secular countries and the people on the ground? The religious communities?
I think that assumes that elites are not religious, and I don't think that is necessarily the case. And it assumes that people on the ground are religious, and I want to slip through that divide a little bit and say that I am not sure it is as neat and tidy as that. What I do think is that people for whom religion is not important find it difficult to understand that you can't just substitute.
In Canada, during the Multani case, which was the case of a Sikh schoolboy who wanted to take his kirpan to school, the Supreme Court said yes he could, but he did negotiate wearing his kirpan with the local school, but then the school board took issue with it. One of the suggestions during the negotiation process involved him keeping the kirpan in a cover, sewn shut, and so on, underneath his clothing, so there were all kinds of negotiations around what was acceptable to him. But at one point somebody suggested he could just wear a little symbol around his neck, a little kirpan, like others wear crosses. But that was not acceptable to him and I think some people have a hard time understanding why that is unacceptable, but also why to some Sikhs it might have been acceptable. So the variability amongst people who are religious is also something which is often misunderstood and if one person says that's ok with me, people want to know why it isn't acceptable for somebody else, not understanding that religion too is lived, interpreted, practiced in very different ways. So there are divides, to be sure, and I think also we need to be careful about ratifying what we imagine to be a divide.