21 Oct 2010

Human rights must always trump religion

The Tribune - Welland, Ontario March 27, 2009


Convicting Galileo for stating the Earth is not the centre of the universe. Stoning women for the crime of adultery. Death sentences for the crime of writing blasphemous books. A jail sentence for naming a teddy bear after a religious figure.

Four simple illustrations of how religious beliefs have been used to curtail human rights. It's not difficult to find numerous other examples.

If religious beliefs can and have been used to curtail human rights, it seems obvious the right to criticize religious beliefs or certain aspects of religious beliefs would be an integral part of the human right of freedom of expression.

Yet there are disturbing developments that seem to place protection of religious beliefs above human rights and would diminish the right to criticize religious beliefs and practices.

Exhibit 1 is the patchwork of human rights legislation across Canada. Each province has its own legislation, as does the federal government. Complainants may file complaints in more than one jurisdiction. Inconsistency in language may result in different results in different jurisdictions.

As an example, section 13 of the Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits web postings of "any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt by reason of the fact that that person or those persons are identifiable on the basis of a prohibited ground of discrimination," such as religion.

British Columbia legislation covers any publication. Ontario legislation only covers signs. Our patchwork of inconsistent laws and the prospect of having to defend oneself in more than one jurisdiction makes it dangerous to criticize any religious belief or practice for fear of being accused of exposing another to hatred or contempt.

Exhibit 2 is the recent pronouncement from Barbara Hall, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, that we need a national press council with power over all media to adjudicate in relation to professional standards and discrimination. The OHRC wants to protect its turf in dealing with what it deems to be hateful expression on the basis that, "as a statutory human rights institution founded over 45 years ago, the OHRC knows first-hand the importance of standing up and speaking out publicly to defend human rights."

Right, as if any institution is any more than the sum of its current staff and its current policies.

The OHRC report calling for a national press council states "a human rights approach offers broad tools for confronting hate expression without trampling on freedom of expression."

Yet it was the OHRC that denounced Maclean'sand Mark Steyn for racism without holding a hearing. Talk about trampling on freedom of expression.

The OHRC then argues "Canada's international obligations" must be considered before any decisions are made to repeal section 13 of the CHRA or narrow the Criminal Code sections relating to hate speech. So let's go to Exhibit 3, which is the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 62/154 titled "Combating defamation of religions."

This document starts off quite appropriately with the need to "promote and encourage universal respect for and observance of all human rights and fundamental freedoms without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion," which of course relates to people, but then takes an ominous 90-degree turn and speaks of the "concern that defamation of religions could lead to social disharmony and violation of human rights." We must therefore "effectively combat defamation of all religions."

So we go from a concern for people to a concern for religion. Instead of protecting people, this resolution would have us protect religions and religious ideology.

Nowhere does this vague UN resolution define what may be considered to be defamation of religion. Worse, no defences are mentioned. Is truth a defence to a charge of defamation of religion? What about the expression of an honestly held opinion based on accurate facts? What makes this all the more chilling is section 13 of the CHRA similarly contains no defences to a charge of hate speech.

It may seem obvious but only people have and are entitled to human rights. No religion, no religious practices and no ideas qualify for such protection. Respect for religions and religious beliefs must never trump human rights.

Outlawing defamation of religion is a bad idea that must be stopped in its tracks.

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