Dr. Avnish Jolly, Winnipeg, Canada November 26 : The most prominent disputes over religious symbols in the public sphere have involved religious headcoverings – one of the most immediately obvious demonstrations of one’s faith that automatically distinguishes Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews from the larger, mostly Christian population in the Western world. The rise of immigrants has meant that headcoverings have become significant symbols of difference, provoking debate about their role in the public sphere.
The issue of religious symbols in the public sphere has given rise to widespread debate on the scope of freedom of religion around the world. The most prominent of the religious symbols at stake in current debates is headscarf (hijab), kippa (yarmulke) a small skullcap, turban and kirpan.
An aspect of the more traditionally Western Christian faith, the crucifix is a representation of the Christian cross with a figure of Christ on it. Often hung on the wall, crucifixes may be found in churches, classrooms, courtrooms, and legislative buildings throughout the Western world. Crucifixes may also be worn as a pendant on a necklace.
Recently, the survey of 1,600 Canadian residents was conducted by the Angus Reid Institute, a non-partisan, not-for-profit research organization, in conjunction with the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and The Laurier Institution.
According to the recent survey, Nearly 90 per cent of Canadians have no problem with a nun wearing her habit in public and 80 per cent support the wearing of a kippa (a Jewish cap) in public, while three-quarters have no problem with the wearing of a hijab, the scarf many Muslim women wear to cover their heads and chest, according to a poll by the Angus Reid Institute. But when it comes to wearing a Niqab, or carrying a kirpan, three-quarters of residents are opposed from the data provided.
According to data collected the result on the question; Do you support or oppose people wearing the following religious symbols or clothing in public? (National results) as follows:
· Kirpan — 29 per cent support, 71 per cent oppose
· Hijab — 73 per cent support, 27 per cent oppose
· Nun’s habit — 88 per cent support, 12 per cent oppose
· Niqab — 27 per cent support, 73 per cent oppose
· Kippa — 80 per cent support, 20 per cent oppose
· Star of David — 86 per cent support, 14 per cent oppose
· Crucifix — 89 per cent support, 11 per cent oppose
In Canada the various political, legislative, and judicial treatments of this issue have given rise to differing interpretations of freedom of religion as defined through domestic and international laws. According to Current Law and Practice; Freedom of religion is firmly entrenched in international law and the constitutions of countries around the world. Sections 18 of both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976) (ICCPR) guarantee everyone the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as well as the freedom to manifest his or her religion or belief in practice and observance. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has emphasized that this freedom encompasses the right to wear religiously distinctive clothing or headcoverings, although article 18(3) of the ICCPR does allow limitations to this freedom provided that they are prescribed by law and necessary to protect safety, public order, health, morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. The UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981) also guarantees the freedom to practise one’s religion and belief.
Freedom of religion in Canada has also been interpreted as necessitating the reasonable accommodation of visible minorities. This means that laws must be adjusted if they have even an indirect discriminatory effect on a person or group based on their particular characteristics. In this sense, Canada’s form of religious neutrality attempts to make laws receptive to the particular needs of minorities; the Canadian approach to religion has been to promote multiculturalism by celebrating the expression of various religions. The goal is not one of assimilation, but of integration based on differences. Although the Preamble; Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does refer to God, legal experts and the Supreme Court of Canada have agreed that this reference is merely symbolic and does not contradict the religious freedoms contained in the document itself.
Sections 2(a) and 15 of the Charter lay out the right to freedom of religion and equal treatment in Canada. In the Supreme Court of Canada’s seminal decision on freedom of religion, R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd.,8 Dickson J. stressed that:
The essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear but the concept means more than that.
… Freedom in a broad sense embraces both the absence of coercion and constraint, and the right to manifest beliefs and practices. Freedom means that, subject to such limitations as are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others, no one is to be forced to act in a way contrary to his beliefs or his conscience.
At its core, freedom of religion encompasses both a positive dimension – freedom to believe and to manifest one’s religion; and a negative dimension – no one can be forced, directly or indirectly, to recognize a particular religion or to act contrary to what he or she believes.
However, freedom of religion under the Charter’s section 2(a) is not absolute. Rather, courts have the power to balance certain countervailing claims. Clearly offensive conduct or symbols that harm or constrain the freedoms or human dignity of others are not tolerated. These limitations are emphasized within the Charter itself. Section 15 highlights the fact that each religion is one of many competing for equality. Section 27 suggests that religion falls under the heading of culture, and that the Charter seeks to preserve and protect all cultures. Finally, section 1 gives courts the discretion to qualify the fundamental freedom of religion by such reasonable limits as are prescribed by law and can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society. In addition to the courts, Canada allows provincial and federal human rights commissions to deal with many issues of discrimination on religious grounds, including the presence of religious symbols in the public sphere.