Notes from the Human Rights, Religion and the Law Lecture at U of T (Jan 11th 2012)

In January 2012, the University of Toronto held a lecture called Human Rights, Religion and the Law as part of a series of events with the Ontario Humans Rights Commission (which was updating its policy on creed) and the University of Toronto Religion in the Public Sphere program. Every time I’ve heard Barbara Hall speak I’ve been moved by her warmth and powerful intellect, and that evening was no different. The other two speakers of the evening, Winnifred Sullivan and David Seljak were equally powerful, and scholars who I hope to continue to follow. What was powerful about that night was the widespread acknowledgement that we need to unpack our definitions and understandings of secularism, understand its foundations, and recognise the role of power in constructing what we assume to be natural. Once we do this, it is easier to see that models based on accommodation and tolerance are deeply flawed.

I mostly just listened to the speakers that night, but today I came across my (brief) notes from the lecture, and I’ve included them below.

Barbara Hall

  • The Human Rights Commission is updating its policy on creed and religious practice. Creed has always been an issue. As an example, no Jews were allowed at pools in the fifties. It’s always been there, but groups seeking accommodation has expanded and grown. Two rights compete, freedom from creed and freedom to practice religion. See this in the discussion of religion prayers held in school.

Q: What exactly is creed that policy talks about?

  • We interpret creed as religion. It can include non deity spiritual practice.
  • A type of secularism: A ‘closed” or ideological secularism with its assumption that all religions are essentially tribal, anti-egalitarian, and potentially violent.
  • There is an idea that to be a good Canadian, one must be secular. So what we call secular Canada is ‘residually’ Christian. Our major institutions (education, healthcare etc) still bear the structure of Christianity. Christian values still define Canadian values and how we understand what is allowable, what is reasonable accommodation. Liberal Protestant Christianity is still the measure of what should be protected.

Winnifred Sullivan:

  • Religious freedom understood differently in different places. In a case about graveyards, the city seemed to imply that if you look in books and don’t see it written, not religious. But religious practice is about what is understood by communities.
  • High religion: textual, institutional
  • But also there is religion that is “oral, homemade”, city thought that couldn’t be legal.
  • In the hearing, plaintiffs asked about religious practice, and the hearings suggested people don’t understand their own religion.
  • Question of how we transform public discussion on these topics. You can only protect what you see; what you see depends on your definitions.
  • Citizenship oath case/debate, marker of broader debate about religious practices. Tariq Ramadan says that if look at local practical level, accommodation happens all the time. If look at ideological issues, different case.

Paul Seljak

  • Need to continue to monitor traditional forms of intolerance and discrimination and develop sensitivity to lingering Christian privilege both in its overt form (eg: Christmas as a civic holiday) and its hidden forms. Commit to deeper multiculturalism instead of majority multiculturalism.
  • My own experience is that religious communities don’t complain enough. Sikh community and Jewish community have courageously led advances for different reasons. Rights talk is incredibly impoverished.
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