Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Where will Ontario fall in the secularism vs Conscience Rights debate?

"Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins.” - anonymous judge.

It has always been the case that rights cannot be treated as absolute, and that one right must end where exercising that right infringes upon someone else's rights.

This debate is in full swing in Canada as it relates to the religious rights of employees providing provincial services and the sometimes conflicting rights of the public that receives these services.


On June 16, 2019 Quebec passed Bill n°21 : An Act respecting the laicity of the State (Official Status legislation), which discusses which subset of employees of provincial services must offer that service with their face uncovered, and a further smaller subset that must do so without wearing religious symbols.   The idea is simple:  when employees are within specific positions they have an additional duty of impartiality, and must not only be impartial but be seen by those receiving the service to be impartial.

There have been arguments, including from some federal politicians during the recent federal election, suggesting that this infringes too far upon the religious rights of the employees.

It might have been a response to the critique of Quebec's laicity bill that lead to the tabling of Bill 207: Conscience Rights (Health Care Providers) Protection Act in Alberta.  In this proposal the religious rights of a health care provider or religious health care organization is suggested to be paramount.


In each case there is an obvious conflict between the religious rights of employees and a wide variety of rights of those receiving government services.  In the objections to Bill 207 several policy areas were often raised: abortion, services for sexual "minorities" (LGBTQ), and medically-assisted death.  These issues were being raised as that bill only related to health care providers, but if a bill extended to other provincial service providers the list of conflicting rights would have grown considerably.

When it comes to religious rights, I suspect for most people being forced to carry out a procedure that is offensive to ones religious identity is more severe than being asked to refrain from wearing religious symbols.  While bill 207 has not yet passed, and has thus far been rejected by a committee, I suspect this is only the beginning of the discussion in the province given how high-profile this issue is being made throughout Canada.


One of the main problems I'm having with this debate is that the loudest arguments against Quebec's bill 21 end up being arguments in favor of Alberta's bill 207.  The reverse is also true, where objections to bill 207 should be seen as arguments in favor of bill 21, and yet the conversions are happening in information silos.


Schuklenk pointed to countries such as Sweden, where there is no legal right to conscientious refusal for workers in any profession, including in health care. This is also the case in Finland and Iceland. 
Sweden holds that because no one is forced to enter into a profession and may resign at any time, no one can be prevented from acting on their own moral or religious beliefs.
(Global news: Medical schools should deny applicants who object to provide abortion, assisted death: bioethicist


While the government does not have a monopoly on employment, it does have a monopoly on the provision of government services.  Governments are left with 3 different scenarios, each of which will be seen by someone to infringe upon someone's rights.

  • Have some separation of church and state where specific employees must carry out the provision of government services impartially, expecting them to represent the state over their religious identity and/or expression.  It should not have been surprising that Quebec would take this position, as it can be seen as the general direction initiated during The Quiet Revolution.
  • Protect the religious identity and expression of the employees, even if this is in conflict with the impartiality of services offered by the government.  This is the direction being proposed in Alberta, with some suggesting that conscience rights are already protected in the province.
  • Try to operate in some middle-ground where the state subjectively determines what religious identity/expression rights to respect and which to deny.  This last option is the option taken so far by most governments in Canada, and I do not believe this is a sustainable way to operate.  I am very uncomfortable when the state is effectively being asked to regulate aspects of religion.

I live in Ontario, so am concerned with this province.  Ontario is one of 3 remaining provinces to have a separate school system, the others being Alberta and Saskatchewan.  While it is unfortunate that this is still the case in 2019, as I believe the separate school system infringes on both laicity and religious rights, it might be an indication of the direction that Ontario would lean in this debate.  As with Alberta, Ontario may lean towards protecting religious identity and expression over protecting the rights and interests of those requiring provincial services.

It has been frustrating to watch Ontario's NDP fighting so strongly against Quebec's secularism bill, especially as we currently have a premier who has sided with Alberta and Saskatchewan on a number of other controversial issues.  The last thing we need is for the Ontario government to start looking seriously into protecting the religious conscience rights of providers of provincial services, as I believe far more rights are threatened by that position than is theoretically protected by it.

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