Jun. 25, 2002. 01:00 AM
Religion can't trump rights of others
By Rachel Giese
SOME RELIGIONS teach that women are inferior to men and that wives should, in all cases, submit to their husbands. Some faiths forbid divorce, pre- or extra-marital sex, and the use of birth control. Some religious groups maintain that certain races and religions are superior to others.
As repugnant, offensive and out-of-date as these beliefs might be, the right to have them, to teach them and to share them with others is a protected one. As it should be. It's a big country, with lots of room for a diversity of ideas, opinions, and ways of living.
Still, there are limits on the religious freedoms protected by the Charter and the Canadian Human Rights Act, mostly to prevent crackpots from hiding behind their religion to justify illegal or discriminatory acts. A literal interpreter of the Bible can't stone adulterers, for instance, nor can an anti-abortionist defend bombing a clinic on religious grounds. An employer who thinks premarital sex is a sin can't force unmarried employees to sign vows of chastity, nor can a faith-based polygamist legally marry more than one person.
It all boils down to the most basic, live-and-let-live definition of rights, which the Canadian Human Rights Act describes as "the principle that all individuals should have an opportunity equal with other individuals to make for themselves the lives that they are able and wish to have" — provided that those individuals don't break the law, or prevent others from making the lives that they wish to have. In other words, one's right to freedom of religion ends where it begins to harm, or impose upon, another person.
Take the spanking case in Aylmer, Ont. Last year, seven children were briefly taken from their home by child welfare authorities after it was revealed that their parents used corporal punishment on their kids, including hitting them with rods and straps, all with the full support of the Aylmer Church of God Restoration.
The removal a caused tremendous outcry at the time, not only from the church's congregation, but also from many others, religious and not, who felt that the rights of parents to hit their kids superseded the rights of children not to be hit. The children are back with their family, but a child welfare agency is currently in court seeking a 12-month supervision order to ensure that the children are not mistreated.
In my books, anyone who feels they have the right to hit another person — particularly someone smaller and less powerful than themselves — is either a bully or abusive. An angry spouse can't legally beat his or her partner, even if the spouse's faith advocated doing so. Why should parents be able use their faith to justify hitting their child? This isn't, after all, a situation in which a freaked out parent too harshly slaps a kid's hand away from an electrical socket or a hot stove. This is a child being hit with a stick, whenever his or her parents feel they deserve it and receiving full church support for doing so.
What about the kids' rights? Perhaps, if given the choice, they might prefer a church that didn't advocate corporal punishment of children.
Then there's the Surrey book ban, a case that is currently before the Supreme Court and which will decide whether the Surrey School Board in British Columbia was right to refuse to recommend three books about gay parents for its kindergarten and Grade 1 classes. At issue were concerns that the positive or neutral portrayal of same-sex families in picture books was inconsistent with the religious views of some parents.
There are so many grounds on which to argue that the board's decision was wrong. The primary one being the B.C. School Act, which requires a secular, non-sectarian approach to education. Another is that marginalizing 5- and 6-year-old kids with gay parents simply because their families might not be someone else's ideal is cruel. Imagine if a group of religious racists objected to positive depictions of Jewish families, or families of colour. Would the Surrey board have banned those books, too?
Probably not. So how can it justify refusing to recommend the use of books that teach tolerance and respect toward families with gay or lesbian members, a group whose rights are also recognized in the Constitution?