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Canada’s Blasphemy Law

March 27, 2015

CFI Canada opposes all blasphemy laws wherever they may exist and however they may be presented. Blasphemy laws are themselves violations of human rights and an attack on freedom of speech. Often in their administration, they engender further human rights violations in prescribed punishments.

Many Canadians are unaware that Canada continues to carry an anti-blasphemy law in the criminal code. Criminal Code Section 296 is the law which has remained on Canadian books since 1892. Blasphemy laws are, by their very design, contrary to the idea of secularism – the separation of church and religion from the state and laws which govern people.

Criminal Code Section 296

296. (1) Everyone who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years

(2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.

(3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.

Legal opinions suggest that a successful application of blasphemous libel is unlikely in Canada. Repeatedly, however, lawyers have indicated that this law is “sleeping, not dead”. Canadians need only observe that religious leaders and authorities are eager to support laws which would place them beyond criticism or satire. Religious leaders seeking the privilege of exemption from criticism and scrutiny is to be questioned. There is a need to be separate hate speech, which is an essential part of modern law from blasphemy.

The continued existence of Criminal Code Section 296 is inconsistent with Canadian values and the Canadian government’s interest to protect religious minorities. Canada’s Ms. Catherine Godin spoke at the United Nations Human Rights Council on March 11, 2015:

Canada remains deeply concerned about the plight of persecuted religious communities globally, targeted because of their faith, either through government restrictions, terrorist violence or extreme social hostilities. The promotion and defence of freedom of religion or belief remains a central element in Canadian foreign policy. We are deeply concerned by the alarming resurgent form of anti-Semitism seen today and increasing reports of violence against Jews around the world. This is part of a worrying trend of persecution and human rights abuses against religious communities especially in minority situations. We have witnessed in Nigeria, Syria and Iraq extremist interpretations of religion used by terrorist groups to justify attacks on others who do not subscribe to the group’s extremist views. As outlined in your report, tackling such violence requires concerted action by a broad range of actors with states having an over-arching obligation to respect protect and promote human rights. The report also outlines the importance of freedom of expression in combatting hate-speech and we are sympathetic to the call for the repeal of blasphemy laws and other restrictions. Canada has consistently spoken out about the importance of freedom of religion or belief and the need to combat religious intolerance in the world. Our Office of Religious Freedom is funding programming implemented by civil society partners to promote interfaith dialogue, pluralism and human rights while both engaging governments and calling them to account to defend and promote religious freedom.

To learn more about Canada’s blasphemous libel law, please visit CFI Canada’s webpage documentation.

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