On November 8, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights finished its study of a bill to amend Canada's Criminal Code. In its clause-by-clause examination, the committee unanimously agreed to maintain the repeal of section 296, Canada's blasphemy law. However, the committee decided not to repeal Section 176, which criminalizes disturbing a religious worship, and instead amended its language.
The BC Humanist Association and other secularists have long called for the repeal of the blasphemy law. In our brief to the committee, we wrote:
To date, we are aware of no group or body that supports retaining this section and we have heard no arguments in favour of its retention. Rather, its repeal has wide support across the civil sector and the political spectrum.
The committee's vote means Canada's blasphemy law is one step closer to being repealed. Next the bill returns to the House of Commons for debate and vote at third reading before going to the Senate.
When it came to debating the repeal of section 176, MPs from all parties on the committee supported reversing the government's decision following pressure from religious lobby groups.
Conservative MP Rob Nicholson told the committee:
I can tell you truthfully that I had 900 emails this weekend. My office said there were 900 emails from people in support of keeping section 176 as it is.
Liberal MP Colin Fraser added:
...in view of all of the other arguments that we heard at committee, and given that there is a seeming rising volatility in the level of intolerance that should be completely rejected, I'm persuaded that section 176 should remain in the code, that it does serve some purpose.
NDP MP Alistair MacGregor said:
I think I've been absolutely convinced that it needs to be kept in the Criminal Code, simply because it has very significant symbolic value for the people involved. I have a pile of letters in my hand right now that were written to me by children who obviously feel this is very important to them.
Ultimately, the committee agreed to change the language around "clergyman" to "religious or spiritual official" and otherwise retain the criminal prohibitions on disrupting a religious service.
As we said in our brief, and was argued by religious groups at the committee, this section is used to criminalize religious dissent and protest. While the new language expands the provision to include all "religious or spiritual officers", it still fails to provide equal protection to representatives of Humanist and other nonreligious groups.
We'll continue to track the progress of this bill and call on Parliamentarians to repeal sections 176 and 296.
Keep up to date with our progress: