What happened when we worked together on Bill C-51

14 November 2017

Last week, the parliamentary Justice Committee wrapped up its review of Bill C-51, a housekeeping bill to update the Criminal Code. Among the updates proposed by C-51 were the deletion of laws deemed outdated or unnecessary – including the only specific protection for clergy or worship services (section 176 of the Criminal Code).

The EFC and many other concerned religious groups asked the Justice Committee not to remove this protection. EFC President Bruce Clemenger and Public Policy Director Julia Beazley appeared before the committee on October 30. They told the committee,

To remove this specific protection for religious officials and gatherings from the Criminal Code sends a confusing and contradictory message to faith communities in Canada, many of whom feel particularly and increasingly vulnerable.

They went on to explain,

The specific protection offered by section 176 recognizes that there is something different, distinct and valuable about religious practice. It recognizes that there is a good that is worthy of specific and explicit protection. To remove this protection would erode that recognition, and undermine the value and place of religious belief and practice in Canada.

The Justice Committee heard the concerns of religious Canadians, and responded positively. Both Liberal and Conservative members of the committee introduced amendments to keep section 176 and to change the wording so that it clearly includes all religious groups.

In the end the Committee voted to retain this specific, explicit protection for religious officials and gatherings, and we are deeply grateful. The amendment still needs to be adopted by the House at the bill's third reading, so supporters need to continue to ask their MP to vote to keep section 176 in the Criminal Code.

In the context of the horrific shooting at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in Texas on Nov. 5, it is especially significant that these concerns were heard and received a positive response.

Last week the EFC also made a separate Nov. 6 appearance before the Canadian Heritage Committee to speak about religious discrimination. We urged the government to listen to religious voices in Canada, and one of our recommendations was to retain the specific protection in section 176 of the Criminal Code.

The response of the Justice Committee is an example of parliamentarians listening to the concerns and perspective of religious communities. This kind of response demonstrates a respect and concern for Canadians with deeply held religious beliefs.

The EFC has long found it constructive to ask: "What can we do better together than on our own?" The efforts on Bill C-51 are an excellent example of what can happen when we work together.

The EFC worked with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops as well as the Association for Reformed Political Action to draft an interfaith letter on Bill C-51, which EFC affiliates and interfaith partners were invited to sign. On Oct. 31 an interfaith letter to the Justice Minister signed by more than 66 religious leaders was tabled with the Justice Committee. Many of these leaders were from EFC affiliates, but the letter was also signed by Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist and Jewish leaders.

Our affiliates and interfaith partners expressed common concern about Bill C-51, which had a more significant impact than any one of us would have had alone.

And thousands of concerned Canadians contacted their MPs to ask for the specific protection for clergy and worship to be retained. Media reports quote MPs as saying they received an “avalanche” of correspondence.

The EFC would like to thank the many affiliates and interfaith partners who signed a letter of common concern on Bill C-51. We’d like to thank the thousands of Canadians who engaged with their MPs to ask for the specific protection of clergy and worship services to be maintained. And we’d like to thank the Justice Committee for hearing these concerns and responding to them.

In the increasingly anti-religious climate in Canada, the protection of religious faith and practice is critical.

Please join us in praying for the Justice Committee’s recommendations to be adopted by the House of Commons in its final vote on Bill C-51 in the weeks ahead, and for a favourable response in the Senate.

Author: Julia Beazley