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Controversial No Special Treatment


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
No Special Treatment

No special treatment

As Canadian society becomes ever more pluralistic, minority religious practices increasingly come into conflict with laws designed for universal application. The controversy this year over the wearing of the niqab in Quebec highlighted the clash between religious freedom and our society's baseline expectation of equality in the treatment of men and women. Similarly, in British Columbia, the provincial government recently asked its courts to rule on the constitutionality of polygamy laws, in response to a religious sect that practices multiple marriage.

And now in Ontario, two incidents -- one outside the courtroom, one in it -- are pitting religious freedom against the criminal law, reviving an old controversy and raising a new one.

The first involves the wearing of the kirpan, or Sikh ceremonial dagger. Canada's Sikh community has argued for decades that members are entitled to carry this blade as a symbol of faith and their commitment to confront evil. In 2006, the Supreme Court ruled that the kirpan could be worn by Sikh students, even in the classroom, on the condition that it be sewn into its sheath and worn under clothing.

Last week, lawyer Manjit Mangat suffered serious stab wounds when he was attacked with a kirpan outside a community centre in Brampton. There have been three other incidents of violence in Toronto involving the daggers in the past few years, in addition to stabbings in British Columbia and Quebec. The latest attack has renewed calls for the wearing of kirpans to be banned, on the basis of public safety.

The second controversy involves the use of marijuana. In an Ontario courtroom this week, members of the "Church of the Universe" are challenging the constitutionality of Canada's prohibition against pot. In their church, apparently, cannabis is a sacrament, the "tree of life," and they claim to have a right to consume it on religious grounds. At issue in this case is not only the right to practise one's faith, but the definition of faith itself. Is the Church of the Universe, founded in an Ontario quarry in 1969, a true "religion" in the generally accepted sense of the word? Are its "traditions," which include not only pot smoking but also nudity, deserving of legal protection?

Both these matters illustrate that making exceptions to major public policy issues on religious grounds is fraught with danger. In the case of the kirpan controversy, whatever its symbolic value and despite the arguments of the Sikh community, the reality is that in the wrong hands, a kirpan is a weapon. Non-Sikh Canadians cannot walk openly in public, on planes or in schools, wearing a six-inch blade or other deadly device. Making an exception for kirpans on religious grounds creates an unacceptable double standard, and puts members of the public at risk of harm, however small.
With regard to the plea to allow pot-smoking, while many Canadians may not consider the Church of the Universe a bona fide faith, most do not dispute the need to reform our country's marijuana laws. An Angus Reid poll in 2007 found that 55% of respondents supported marijuana legalization; another Angus Reid survey in 2009 in British Columbia found that two-thirds of respondents would legalize marijuana, in large part to combat violence caused by the drug trade. And so we stand with the "Church of the Universe" on the broader issue of drug reform.

But such reform must be of universal application. Allowing the Church -- or anyone else -- ad hoc exemptions would create a double standard.

Our laws should apply equally to all. Freedom to practise one's faith is not absolute; it must respect the rights and restrictions which attach to all citizens, and those restrictions should not be lifted for a select few, even if they claim to be following a higher power.