Blasphemy repeal bill moves to Senate

Canada's blasphemy law is one step closer to being repealed after MPs in the House of Commons agreed to pass Bill C-51 at third reading on Monday.

The bill makes a number of amendments to the Criminal Code, including repealing the prohibition on blasphemous libel. The BC Humanist Association and other freethought and secular groups across Canada have been calling for its repeal, including 7400 Canadians who signed a Parliamentary e-petition last year.

Introducing the Bill at third reading, Marco Mendicino, the Liberal Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice, said:

Bill C-51 would make other important changes to remove offences that are no longer pertinent in today's society. One such example is the removal of the offence of blasphemous libel under, currently, section 296. This old offence, with its English origins in the 1600s, has as its purpose the suppression of criticism directed at God, the king, and government. Such an offence is a historical holdover and has no place in a liberal democracy, where freedom of expression is enshrined as a constitutionally protected right. In so removing this offence, we would follow the example of the United Kingdom, which repealed its analogous offence almost a decade ago, in 2008.

Ali Ehsassi, Liberal MP for Willowdale, added:

...we heard from witnesses such as Greg Oliver, of the Canadian Secular Alliance, that Canada's blasphemy law is obsolete and potentially in violation of the charter guarantee of freedom of expression. I was honoured to have sponsored the petition started by Mr. Oliver on this issue and am gratified to see that Bill C-51 would repeal section 296 of the Criminal Code, the prohibition on publishing blasphemous libel.

Many of the MPs who spoke to the bill also discussed their support for the Justice Committee's decision to amend, rather than repeal, section 176 of the Criminal Code. This section prohibits disrupting a religious service. The BCHA and Canadian Secular Alliance spoke in favour of the Government's initial decision to repeal this section as we argue it criminalizes religious dissent and uses the power of the state to protect religious orthodoxy.

Comments from Conservative Party MPs, however, shed light on how a religious lobby was mobilized to argue in favour of this relatively obscure section.

The Conservative justice critic Rob Nicholson said in the debate:

I had reached out to a number of religious institutions, and they were completely unaware.

And Conservative MP John Brassard said:

I myself had notified over 30 churches within my riding of Barrie—Innisfil on the urging of the hon. member for Niagara Falls [Nicholson].

Following this outreach, evangelical groups and congregants from churches across Canada flooded their MPs with emails, letters and calls, to the point where NDP MP Alistair MacGregor called it an "avalanche."

When the bill reached the justice committee, MPs then adopted amendments to retain section 176, with modernized language.

The bill is now at second reading in the Senate where it will likely be heard in the New Year. Once it passes second reading, it will be considered by the Senate's justice committee before a final vote at third reading. After that vote, the bill receives Royal Assent and becomes law.

The BCHA is writing BC's Senators to support the repeal of Canada's blasphemy laws. To add your voice, contact your Senator. The Senators for British Columbia are:

Read our analysis of section 176 of the Criminal Code.

Read our brief for the House of Commons Justice Committee.

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