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TWU commentary: A win for equality and against religious intolerance

Paul Schachter is a retired lawyer (Juris Doctor 1974) with extensive training and practice in the areas of human rights, civil rights and civil liberties. The analysis and views in this commentary are individual and not meant to be attributed to any organization.

On June 15, 2018, in a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada upheld the decision of the Law Society of British Columbia (LSBC) to deny approval to Trinity Western University (TWU) for its proposed law school. In a companion case, the Supreme Court also upheld the decision to deny accreditation by the Law Society of Upper Canada. These decisions support Canada’s opposition to religious intolerance wherever it surfaces, even under the banner of “freedom of religion”.

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The pointlessness of Canada's polygamy law

These sentences are a disgrace.

Far from having any deterrent effect, they are more likely to embolden others and not just those within the fundamentalist Mormon tradition.

If there is a chilling effect at all, it will be on those who left this abusive and dysfunctional community and bravely testified against friends and family.

Vancouver Sun columnist Daphne Bramham has covered the polygamist Fundamentalist Mormon sect in Bountiful BC for decades. Her comments are in reaction to news yesterday that Winston Blackmore and James Oler were sentenced to house arrest after being convicted of polygamy. Blackmore received six months for marrying 24 wives while Oler received three months for his five wives.

The record shows both men had wives under the age of 18.

After their house arrest, both men will be on probation for a year.

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The limits of free speech? Jun 25, 2018 Newsletter

Yesterday, Samir Gandesha talked to our Vancouver Sunday meeting about the historical importance of free speech for dissenting from authority. He also talked about some of the nuances and limits that form the debates that dominate today's discussions of the topic.

If you didn't get a chance to see his talk and you'll be in Vancouver on Wednesday evening, he will be covering much of the same ground in his presentation at SFU Harbour Centre. LGBTQ2+ rights activist Morgane Oger and BCCLA executive director Josh Paterson will follow up with their own comments.

These debates are likely to continue as longtime anti-gay Christian activist Bill Whatcott has been arrested and charged with distributing hate literature at Toronto Pride and a "LGBT: Let God Be True" event featuring another anti-gay activist Kari Simpson was cancelled by New Westminster's Anvil Centre.

Meanwhile, in what's been described as a "concerning" precedent, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) paid out over $3 million to Maajid Nawaz following his threat of a libel lawsuit. The SPLC had controversially (and for bizarre reasoning) labelled Nawaz an "anti-Muslim extremist." Here in Canada, Jordan Peterson is suing Wilfred Laurier University following comments said in a disciplinary hearing with a TA last year. Peterson has said he wants his lawsuit to convince university professors and administrators "to be much more circumspect in their actions and their words."

Among our membership are many strong and differing opinions on each of these issues. While we don't have positions on any of these specific controversies, I think The Oxford Declaration on Freedom of Thought and Expression, adopted at the 2014 World Humanist Conference, can be informative for us all. It's worth reading the entire Declaration but the main principles are:

The right to freedom of thought and belief is one and the same right for all.

No one anywhere should ever be forced into or out of a belief.

The right to freedom of expression is global in its scope.

There is no right not to be offended, or not to hear contrary opinions.

States must not restrict thought and expression merely to protect the government from criticism.

Freedom of belief is absolute but the freedom to act on a belief is not.

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Axial tilt is the reason for the season

By Stephen Schneider, University of Massachusetts Amherst

The summer solstice marks the official start of summer. It brings the longest day and shortest night of the year for the 88 percent of Earth’s people who live in the Northern Hemisphere. People around the world observe the change of seasons with bonfires and festivals and Fête de la Musique celebrations.

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More on TWU - June 18, 2018 Newsletter

As I mentioned in my special update on Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the decision by law societies to reject Trinity Western University's proposed law school was reasonable.

The religious right in Canada has, as one might expect, decried the decision as a "big loss" for religious freedom and even arguing that "faith is now banned from Canada's public spaces."

While the full ramifications of this ruling will take years to sort out through subsequent rulings, such a reaction seems disconnected from the decisions as they're written. In each decision the justices express a recognition for the rights of individual Canadians to practice (or not) their faith. Where there is some disagreement is when that practice comes into contact with the rights of others.

In other words, religious freedom in Canada is a bit like the freedom to swing your arms about in public: it's all fine until your hand connects with someone else's face.

Aside from the reaction of religious activists, there has been ample coverage of the result in the media. I'll share just a few that I found interesting: 

Let me know if you find other illuminating or unique analyses.

On top of that, I spoke with one of our lawyers for the case earlier this afternoon and will hopefully have that conversation out as a special podcast later this week.

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A win for equality - Supreme Court rejects TWU law school

The BC Humanist Association is celebrating a pair of 7-2 decisions from the Supreme Court of Canada affirming the Ontario and BC law societies' decisions to reject Trinity Western University's proposed law school.

The five-judge majority, writing in a united voice, argues that the law societies have a legitimate interest in ensuring principles of diversity and non-discrimination are fundamental to the integrity of the legal profession. Permitting a law school with a discriminatory admissions policy would be contrary to this end and therefore a decision to approve was unreasonable. "A more diverse bar is a more competent bar."

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Days from the TWU decision - Jun 11, 2018 newsletter

Many of you will recall that back in December we flew to Ottawa to argue before the Supreme Court of Canada on whether law societies should have to approve a law school from Trinity Western University while it maintains a discriminatory admissions policy.

We've been told that the Court will render its decision on Friday morning.

While there are realistically only two ways the court could go - siding with BC and Ontario's law societies or with TWU - it's the details that will matter.

Our submissions challenged TWU's claim that its religious rights were being infringed upon. We said organizations don't have religious rights under Canadian law and that if the court were to recognize such rights they should do so under a strict test.

I'll be sure to update you on Friday once we know the result and have had a chance to review it.

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Roseanne's implosion: When art, free speech and social media collide

By Sarah Joseph, Monash University

Another one bites the dust. In posting a racist tweet that resulted in the US network ABC summarily cancelling her show, Roseanne Barr joins a long line of people who have blown up their career with a social media post. And, as is always the case with such episodes, a prominent strand of the ensuing maelstrom will be all about “free speech”.

But what are the actual free speech implications of this episode?

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The need for charity law reform - June 4, 2018 Newsletter

On Thursday, I shared a message asking you to help us ensure Canada's charity laws are reformed.

Like all charities in Canada, we're subject to strict but ill-defined restrictions on our political activities.

As a group that advocates for the rights of the nonreligious and supports democracy and human rights, this puts us at risk when we speak out on pressing social issues.

The Liberals promised to reform these laws when they were elected and an expert panel provided clear recommendations for change.

Now we need your help to hold the government to account. 

Send a letter to the Prime Minister today

Tell him to follow-through and create a new law to protect Canadians’ right to be heard through the charities they support.

One of the steps to reforming Canada's charity laws is building a statutory definition of charity. If we can get the government to commit to this, we can have our best opportunity to challenge the privileged state of religion in our law.

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Secularism in court

Two court cases coming out of Alberta and one that reached the Supreme Court of the USA brought the legal aspects of secularism into focus this past week.

Secularism, to the BCHA, is “the right of every individual to practice any religion or none, free from coercion by the government, private institutions or their community.” It also includes a recognition “that the state has a duty of religious neutrality, meaning it must neither endorse nor prohibit any belief or non-belief.”

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