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Church-State Separation Comes to Canada

The following article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 15, Number 3.

A petition by the Humanist League of Canada to remove references to God from the national constitution of Canada has unleashed a storm of controversy and damaged the career of at least one Canadian legislator.

The preamble of Canada's 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that "Canada is founded upon principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law." About 1,000 residents of Member of Parliament Svend Robinson's district in Vancouver signed a petition that called for the substitution of the phrase "intellectual freedom" for "supremacy of God" to reflect "the deeply held views of people of many different religious faiths as well as those who have no religious beliefs." It decried the existing language as a "discriminatory reference and offensive to millions of Canadians who are non-Christian and non-religious."

Robinson suffered the censure of his colleagues when he read the petition in the Commons on June 8 (he could have quietly filed it with the clerk of the House). Legislators booed, religious constituents protested, and Robinson was demoted by his party from his senior seat on the front bench in the House to the fifth row. He apologized to Parliament for creating the uproar and said that, although he agreed with deleting "God" from the Charter, he did not approve of the suggested substitution.

Meanwhile, the Humanist Association of Canada was stunned by the anti-atheist sentiment that the incident revealed, as calls poured into Parliament protesting the petition. The Campus Freethought Alliance, the Council for Secular Humanism-sponsored umbrella organization for humanist student groups, issued a press release that commended Robinson for having "greatly advance the unending struggle for equal rights and religious freedom. Your stance has not been popular, but your principles are forward-looking and remarkable."

And there were other supporters. An editorial writer in the Montreal Gazette noted that "the connection between God's supremacy and core principles that Canadians hold dear, like compassion, justice, freedom, and the extension of human rights, is dubious."

"Dropping the reference to God would in no way infringe on the freedom of individual Canadians—quite likely the majority of us—to go on acknowledging God's paramountcy," it continued. "It would not change how we conduct our affairs one iota, either in public forums or in our private lives. It would simply remove an unnecessary and unseemly intrusion of religion into the body politic."

In another setback for Canadian secularists, on June 9 the government decided against adopting the recommendation of a joint federal and provincial task force that courtroom witnesses should no longer have to swear on a Bible "to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God." Few people are aware that alternative oaths are legal, and are too intimidated to ask to use them, said the multicultural and race relations committee. A public survey showed that half of the respondents wanted to retain the religious oath, and the government opted not to change it. 

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This page was last updated 12/04/2003

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