eurel     Données sociologiques et juridiques sur la religion en Europe et au-delà


  • December 2017 : Religion and sexuality : recent controversies in Canada

Although opposition to sexual equality rights (such as abortion, same-sex marriage, sex workers’ rights) is not confined to individuals or groups who identify as religious, frequently the loudest voices heard in public debates and legal controversies are those claiming opposition based on religious freedom rights.

The organization of opposition to constitutional and legislative change often is represented by specific religious groups, Catholic, Evangelical Christian, Muslim and Orthodox Jews. Particularly in relation to legal changes, such as the redefinition of marriage from heterosexual (one man and one woman) to include same-sex couples (two persons), groups such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Interfaith Coalition on Marriage and Family are frequently named interveners in the legal disputes, although other groups (i.e. REAL Woman of Canada) are also vocal about their positions, whether on their websites or in media interviews.

Members of religious organizations do not always conform to the doctrine of their religious tradition ; frequently lived religious practice and official teaching diverge from one another, often on issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage. Importantly, the organization and dominance of particular religious voices in opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples, access to abortion or the rights of sex workers’ misses two very important issues.

First, many religious individuals and groups have been actively fighting to support the rights of sexual minorities, access to abortion services for women and the rights of sex workers. For example, in the Ontario civil union case, the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto specifically argued that the inability to perform same-sex marriages violated their religious freedom rights ; see Halpern v Canada, [2003] OJ No 2268 [Ontario Court of Appeal].

Further, in an open letter submitted to the justice committee in response to Bill C-36, the legislation developed by the government after the Bedford case, dozens of Anglican clergy argued that the proposed law is immoral and would pose risks to sex workers’ safety (see “Anglican Clergy call prostitution bill immoral,” Maclean’s, Rachel Browne, 2014).

Oppositional attitudes to these particular debates are seen outside religious groups and attitudes, and in fact restrictive, oppositional viewpoints are witnessed in daily expressions of discrimination as experienced by women who seek abortions (or who argue that access to abortion ought to be more widely available), sexual minorities and same-sex couples, and sex workers (see Catherine G Taylor & Tracey Peter, et al, Every Class in Every School : Final Report on the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia in Canadian Schools. Toronto, Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, 2011).

Consequentially, perceptions about religious identity are often that religion ‘inherently’ opposes sexually diverse identities, access to abortion or sex workers rights and further ties religiosity to conservative (negatively connoted) identities. This public perception frames religion and sexuality as opponents, whereby to be religious is to be anti-X (LGBTQI, feminist) and to be LGBTQI, feminist, sex worker or seeking an abortion is to be anti-religious.

See a list of relevant decisions.

  • June 2017 : New religious movements : contemporary and historical legal cases

Because of tensions between the beliefs and practices of some new religious movements and those of the majority, the Canadian judicial authorities were called upon in multiple instances to rule on conflicts related to various issues, including the well-being of children growing up in specific minority religious groups. This was the case, for example, of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish movement Lev Tahor – when children were taken into care by social services after accusations of abuse in 2013 and 2014 – and of several families, members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who were forced to agree to blood transfusions being administered to their underage children despite their refusal of this practice on religious grounds (Chatham-Kent Children’s Services v.A.H., 2014 ONCJ 50 or Centre hospitalier universitaire Sainte-Justine v. X, 2011 QCCS 3803).

Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the small religious groups that have been most involved in the Canadian legal process since the 1950s. A major ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada concerning freedom of speech and freedom of the press (Boucher v. the King, 1985) sided with a Quebec farmer and follower of the religion who handed out anti-Catholic and anti-government pamphlets in his village of Beauce. This ruling has been a reference on the subject since its publication. Another major legal cause concerning minority religions (Ontario Human Rights Commission v. Simpson-Sears, 1985), this time involving the employee of a retail store newly converted to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, introduced into the legal vocabulary a notion that is now at the centre of discussions concerning diversity in all its facets : reasonable accommodation. Thus, despite their sometimes precarious position within the Canadian religious landscape, new religious movements have been able, historically as well as in contemporary society, to contribute in several respects to the advancement of reflections concerning individual rights and freedoms.

More recently, members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (or “Pastafarians”) have been in the public eye because of their special requests for photographs on their driving licences. Many Pastafarians, who claim to worship a monster made of spaghetti that is said to have created the world, are seeking the right to wear a colander on their head and/or a pirate costume, including a hat, as a sign of devotion. A Quebec judge recently ruled this request inadmissible (Narayana v. Société de l’assurance automobile du Québec, 2015). A member of this Church residing in British Columbia also ran into problems with the wearing of a sieve in his legal identity photos, and maintains that his right to religious freedom is curtailed by these constraints.

See also "New religious movements in Canada" (Eurel section "Social and religious data").

Mathilde Vanasse-Pelletier

D 7 décembre 2017    AHeather Shipley AMathilde Vanasse-Pelletier

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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