Dealing with Religious Differences

30 November 2015

How can we talk about reasonable accommodation for religious symbols in Canadian society?


During the 1993 election, then prime minister Kim Campbell said, "An election is no time to discuss serious issues." Her point was that an election is too short to address substantive changes to social policies.

So now that the election is over, let’s talk about some of the issues that surfaced in it.

The debate about the face-covering niqab is the tip of the iceberg of the broader issue of reasonable accommodation and tolerance.

How much difference in the expression of custom, belief and practice is compatible with the social cohesion necessary to sustain the kind of free and democratic society Canadians want?

The debate is particularly important because the norms and principles that frame it are themselves in flux.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms contains phrases such as "freedom of conscience and religion," "equality," "life, liberty and security of the person" as well as "principles of fundamental justice," but nowhere are these concepts defined.

Who should shape the meaning of these phrases but society itself?

Of course, it’s a difficult slog to create social consensus, and until we do this hard work our courts are left to fill that vacuum. Even among judges there is no consensus – witness the number of split decisions by our Supreme Court.

The federal parties and the Quebec government have also staked out positions, although mainly on narrow aspects of the issue, such as the appropriateness of wearing a niqab while giving or receiving government services.

Accommodation is an important issue for many Canadians, according to various polls. The EFC’s own polling suggests Evangelicals are more accepting than other Canadians of religious symbols being worn by public officials.

This is significant because Evangelicals do not as a rule believe their faith requires specific attire or symbols. Some wear crosses, but it is of personal significance and not a religious requirement.

Yet we are respectful and supportive of those who have a requirement such as a head scarf, turban or cap. We take our faith seriously and have empathy for others who do likewise.

When we engage in arguments about whether the Muslim hijab, the Sikh dastaar, the Jewish kippah or some other practice is cultural rather than religious, we should also remember the Supreme Court has ruled it inappropriate for the State to determine whether a religious practice is legitimate.

A branch of the government should not be deciding matters of religious doctrine or practice. Would you want it deciding what the doctrinal statement of your church should contain or omit?

The Court did say it can decide on whether a practice is sincerely held – that is a matter of evidence.

Another concern is the attitude that an infrequent or brief infringement might not be a serious violation. This argument, heard occasionally even in court, proposes that a little pork in the soup on occasion is not a serious violation of Jewish or Muslim beliefs, nor requiring a religious niqab-wearing woman to show her face in public only for a minute.

As people of deep religious conviction, we must clearly articulate that the duration of the violation does not mitigate the harm. Who would want lawyers to violate their oaths or doctors to compromise their care with the excuse they did so infrequently?

These debates are important opportunities to talk about religious freedom. Remember that under the Charter, no right or freedom is absolute – it can be limited if doing so is justifiable to preserve a free and democratic society.

All dialogue on reasonable accommodation must be done respectfully and with openness to being challenged at the same time as one challenges others. Empathy is important, as is the sense of being heard.

On these issues we must go beyond emotions that arise from specific practices to argue from principle. Let’s have the dialogue. And let’s ensure we conduct ourselves with the respect such a significant discussion requires.

Bruce J. Clemenger is president of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada. Please pray for our work. You can follow us on Twitter @theEFC and support us financially at or toll-free 1-866-302-3362.

Author: Bruce J. Clemenger