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City of Victoria proclaims International Blasphemy Rights Day

At its council meeting yesterday, the City of Victoria agreed 3-2 to proclaim September 30, 2016 as International Blasphemy Rights Day.

The BC Humanist Association requested the proclamation as part of its support for freedom of expression; however, the council did amend the proclamation to remove a section challenging the constitutionality of the Criminal Code prohibition on blasphemous libel.

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association:

Nearly every week, from around the world we hear about another person sentenced to jail or even death for writing or saying something that someone considers blasphemous. Proclamations, like this one from the City of Victoria, are an invaluable way to send a message that Canadians are willing to stand behind the right to freedom of speech and the council should be commended for their courage. However, the fact that councillors had to debate this proclamation goes to show just how controversial free speech can be.

The Government of BC rejected a similar proclamation request, citing the fact the Criminal Code was under federal jurisdiction.

In June, the BC Humanist Association helped launch an official e-petition calling on the federal government to repeal Canada’s prohibition on blasphemous libel. Since then, the petition has received over 4600 signatures, including nearly 1000 from British Columbians. The petition closes for signatures on October 20, at which point the government will have 45 days to provide an official response.

International Blasphemy Rights Day is held every September 30 to commemorate the publishing of the Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons, which resulted in some religious believers around the world expressing their disapproval with violent protests, riots and in some cases, murder. The day was started in 2009 by the US Center for Inquiry as part of its Campaign for Free Expression.

The full proclamation is below. The deleted section of the proclamation said:

Section 296 of Canada’s Criminal Code (blasphemous libel), though latent, violates the fundamental rights of citizens with opinions different than that of the majority;

Watch the council meeting (debate starts at 10:00)

Sign the e-petition.

Read 10 years of speaking out against Canada's blasphemy law.

Banner image: Councillor Ben Isitt speaks in favour of proclaiming International Blasphemy Rights Day.

CBC investigation finds majority of BC rehab clinics use 12 step model

In a report for CBC News, journalists Yvette Brend and Manjula Dufresne document their findings from calling every drug rehabilitation facility in British Columbia.

They found:

Many more — in fact the majority that we spoke to — adhere to AA or 12-step regimes, and resist harm reduction as a waste of time. They insist it's all nonsense, despite compelling science.

Alcoholics Anonymous and the 12-step program are religious programs that require submission to a higher power. A thorough review of all available clinical studies found no evidence to demonstrate its effectiveness.

The journalists also found that wait times, quality and range of service vary widely between centres. Some centres were even said to offer "no real programs, rules or concern" and were only interested in payment. There are few government standards and no central list of approved facilities.

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BC Government to require all schools to protect LGBTQ students

Echoing calls by the BC Humanist Association last week, Education Minister Mike Bernier announced yesterday that all public and independent schools in BC will have to make explicit references to sexual orientation and gender identity in their anti-bullying policies.

Districts have been given until the end of the year to update their policies and the ARC Foundation has committed to funding a new advisor position to support more inclusive policies at all schools.

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Will BC stand up for LGBTQ rights in religious schools?

Update (Sep 8, 2016): The Minister of Education has announced that all public and independent BC schools will now have to include specific protections for LGBTQ students in anti-bullying policies.

The BC Humanist Association wrote to BC's Minister of Education today to ask whether BC's government is willing to show a commitment to LGBTQ equality in BC schools.

In Alberta, the government is putting more and more pressure on public and private school boards to adopt policies to uphold the rights of LGBTQ students in the classroom.

A pastor who chairs two Baptist private schools in Alberta is refusing to follow a ministerial order that requires all schools to have a policy explicitly protecting LGBTQ students and staff. Instead the schools claim to have a "zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy" based on Christian principles.

The schools, like many private schools in Alberta and BC, receive significant funding from the provincial government.

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Kelowna refuses anti-choice proclamations

The City of Kelowna will no longer make anti-choice proclamations.

The office of Mayor Colin Basran declined the Kelowna Right to Life Society stating that "Proclamations are not approved if they ... advocate against human rights and freedoms under existing Canadian laws."

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association:

Given Kelowna's sordid history of mayors inserting their politics into proclamations, it's good to see the Mayor stand up for human rights and equality. We hope this commitment will extend to ensuring women's reproductive freedoms and patients' right to choose an assisted death.

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Human rights complaint over religion in AA to proceed

In a ruling released today, the BC Human Rights Tribunal has agreed to consider a complaint alleging that mandating attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) violates an individual's religious freedom.

The complainant, Byron Wood, lost his job with Vancouver Coastal Health after refusing to attend AA as part of a treatment plan. Wood is an atheist who objected to the religious basis for AA.

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BCHA asks Health Committee to end religious coercion in addictions recovery

At a public hearing for the BC Legislature's Standing Committee on Health today, the BC Humanist Association called for an end to the government's tacit endorsement of religious based addictions recovery programs.

Many of the treatment centres in the province still rely on the 12-step recovery model of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). And some addictions specialists include attendance at AA meetings as part of their treatment plan. AA is based on a religious view that treats addictions as a sin in need of moral salvation by God or a higher power.

Courts in the USA have repeatedly found that AA is religious and mandating attendance at AA to be an infringement of the establishment clause.

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Secular organizations launch petition to repeal Canada's blasphemy law

Groups representing Humanists, atheists and secularists across Canada are calling on the Government to repeal an outdated section of the criminal code penalizing so-called “blasphemous libel.”

The e-petition launched yesterday and was signed by over 1000 Canadians in the first day, more then double the minimum number required to be tabled in the House of Commons.

The petition argues the law is unconstitutional and “serves no purpose.” It points out that there have been no charges for blasphemy in Canada for over 35 years and no convictions in over 80 years. Meanwhile “authoritarian states” have used the existence of blasphemy laws in countries like Canada to justify their own clampdown on free expression.

Greg Oliver, President of the Canadian Secular Alliance initiated the petition in collaboration with Centre for Inquiry Canada and Humanist Canada. Oliver said, “The idea that certain subjects should be off limits from criticism or scrutiny has no place in a liberal democracy. Canada's blasphemy law needs to be repealed.”

Writer Raihan Abir, who claimed asylum in Canada after fleeing Bangladesh:

Just days ago we saw the famous Pakistani singer, Amjad Sabri, shot dead by the Taliban in Karachi for hurting religious belief by singing during Ramadan. But even before this act of extremism, he was first accused in a Pakistani court using their blasphemy law and a case was filled against him. He was then shot. As a human rights leader, why should Canada have the same law as Pakistan?

I watched my friends be murdered in Bangladesh for criticizing religion. I was afraid for my own life. By repealing this blasphemy law, Canada can send a signal to Bangladesh and every country that no one should be killed or sent to jail for what they write.

Ali Ehsassi, Liberal Member of Parliament for Willowdale, sponsored the petition. After the petition closes for signatures on October 20, 2016 it will be tabled in the House of Commons and require a response from the Government.

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Bill C-14 becomes law, leaves out classes of people

On Friday, Bill C-14 received Royal Assent and became law in Canada. The bill was the government's response to the Carter ruling that struck down Canada's prohibition on medical assistance in dying.

While the bill provides important safeguards to doctors, nurses, pharmacists and family members who assist a suffering Canadian to die with dignity, the bill's eligibility criteria will limit access to those whose "natural death is reasonably foreseeable."

Senators, arguing that this restriction was neither compassionate nor constitutional, had removed the phrase in an amendment. However, the Liberal Government used their majority in the House of Commons to reintroduce it and a majority of Senators then agreed to maintain the restriction.

The final law does include Senate amendments that restrict family members from helping if they were a beneficiary of the person requesting an assisted death and to force doctors to inform patients of all palliative care options before providing an assisted death.

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association:

The sky did not fall in the two weeks that Canada had no law criminalizing medical assistance in dying. Instead, people in suffering were able to start frank conversations with their medical team about their end of life options.

While this new law should help to reassure the overly conservative parts of the medical community, it remains problematic and will undoubtedly be challenged in court very soon. The eligibility criteria are vague and arbitrary and the amendments Parliament did accept could make it harder for people to be with a dying family member. Further issues of access, particularly in publicly-funded religious hospitals, remain.

The government has promised further consultations on expanding access to medical assistance in dying and the secular and compassionate majority must hold them to that.

Read Dying With Dignity Canada's response.

Bible distribution ends in Abbotsford School District

Following a request by the British Columbia Humanist Association in March, Abbotsford School District Superintendent Kevin Godden has confirmed that “the district will no longer distribute the Gideon Bible or other religious materials to students.”

The District has maintained a policy of distributing materials from external groups, including Gideon Bibles, at the discretion of the superintendent.

Ian Bushfield, Executive Director, BC Humanist Association:

As far as we are aware, Abbotsford was the last public school district in BC that was distributing Gideon Bibles in classrooms. So this is a clear recognition that BC public schools should be secular and inclusive. It’s a sign to parents and students that they are welcome in Abbotsford whether they’re Christian, Muslim, Sikh, atheist or otherwise.

Despite this victory, the Government of BC continues to fund faith-based independent schools – a policy opposed by 70% of the public. The schools we fund as a province should be open and inclusive to students of all faiths and none.

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