Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom
The constitution provides for freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief, opinion, and expression. Every individual is equal under the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law without discrimination based on religion. The law imposes “reasonable limits” on the exercise of these religious rights only where such restrictions can be “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The law permits individuals to sue the government for “violations” of religious freedom. Federal and provincial human rights laws prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion. Civil remedies include compensation and/or changes to the policy or practice responsible for the discrimination.
The law does not require religious groups to register, but the government grants tax-exempt status to religious groups that register as nonprofit organizations with the Charities Directorate of the Canada Revenue Agency. Nonprofit status provides such organizations with federal and provincial sales tax reductions, rebates, and exemptions. To gain and retain tax-exempt status, a group must be nonpolitical and undergo periodic audits. Charitable status also grants members of the clergy various federal benefits, including a housing deduction under the tax code and expedited processing through the immigration system. The term “clergy” includes persons whose communities have licensed, ordained, or otherwise formally recognized them for their religious leadership and authority to perform spiritual duties and services within their religious organization. Individual citizens who donate to tax-exempt religious groups receive a federal tax receipt entitling them to federal income tax deductions.
The criminal code prohibits the practice of polygamy, which is an indictable offense subject to imprisonment of up to five years.
A Quebec government law passed and implemented in June prohibits certain government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions. The law defines a religious symbol as “any object, including clothing, a symbol, jewelry, an adornment, an accessory, or headwear, that (1) is worn in connection with a religious conviction or belief; or (2) is reasonably considered as referring to a religious affiliation.” Among categories included in the law are president and vice presidents of the national assembly; administrative justices of the peace; certain municipal court employees; police, sheriffs and deputy sheriffs; certain prosecutors and criminal lawyers; and certain principals, vice principals, and teachers, among others. The law also requires anyone seeking certain provincial government services to do so with “face uncovered.” The bill invoked the “notwithstanding clause” of the federal constitution, which permits a province to override specific constitutional protections for a period of five years to prevent citizens from bringing challenges to the law based on the federal constitution. The religious symbols ban applies to public school teachers, government lawyers, judges, prison guards, and police officers, among others. It exempts provincial employees working prior to the implementation of the law, but they lose their right to wear religious symbols upon changing jobs or receiving a promotion.
Government policy and practices regarding education, including regulation of religious schools, fall under the purview of the provincial, rather than federal, governments. Six of the 10 provinces provide full or partial funding to some religious schools.
Catholic and Protestant schools in Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan retain the federal constitutionally protected right to public funding they gained when those provinces joined the federation. Other provinces either had no legally recognized denominational schools that qualified for such protection at the time of federation or accession, or they subsequently secured a federal constitutional amendment to terminate religious education funding rights and introduce an exclusively secular publicly funded education system. Federal statutory protection for Catholic and Protestant publicly funded minority education exists in the Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories, which do not have provincial status. Constitutional or federal statutory protection for public funding of religious education does not extend to schools of other religious groups, although British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Quebec offer partial funding to religious schools of any faith that meet provincial scholastic criteria. The law permits parents to homeschool their children or enroll them in private schools for religious reasons.
The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On December 7, the Federal Court of Appeal ruled that the Canadian Church of Atheism of Central Canada did not qualify as a charity under the Income Tax Act in part because it could not be found to be a “religion” in a charitable sense. The court based its finding on the Church’s failure to “demonstrate that its belief system was based on a particular and comprehensive system of doctrine and observances.” In its ruling, the court also noted that registration of an organization as a charity under the Income Tax Act is a privilege, and not a right.
In June the National Council of Canadian Muslims, Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and an individual plaintiff filed a legal challenge in Quebec Superior Court against the provincial law prohibiting certain categories of government employees from wearing religious symbols while exercising their official functions. According to press reports, observers said the legislation would exclude some religious Muslims, Sikhs, and Jews from positions of authority, including in education and law enforcement. The observers also said the legislation unfairly targeted Muslim women in the province who wear hijabs or other head coverings. The challenged law was the third attempt by a Quebec government to pass such legislation regarding the delivery of provincial services; a Parti Quebecois government introduced a bill in 2013 but did not pass it before the 2014 Quebec election, and a Liberal government passed a bill in 2017 that never entered into effect because a series of judicial injunctions suspended its application. The plaintiffs also challenged portions of the newly passed law prohibiting individuals from receiving certain government services with their faces covered. The plaintiffs sought a temporary injunction against implementation of the law, but the Quebec Superior Court declined the request in July. In August the Quebec Court of Appeal agreed to hear the plaintiffs’ appeal of that decision, and in October the court declined to temporarily stay imposition of the law pending a ruling on its constitutionality; as a result, the law remained in force. In September a multifaith organization filed a separate challenge to the law on behalf of three teachers – a Roman Catholic and two Muslims – who wore religious symbols. In October the English Montreal School Board, the largest English language school board in Quebec, challenged the law in court. In November a Quebec teachers union representing 45,000 teachers also filed suit. In total, four different lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the Quebec law remained pending at year’s end.
In May an Ontario court dismissed the appeal of Ontario physicians who objected on religious and/or moral grounds to a provincial policy that required them to provide patients with referrals for “medical services such as medical assistance in dying, abortion, and reproductive health services.” Federal law permits assisted death and abortion but specifies doctors have the right to freedom of conscience and the right not to perform or assist in providing the procedures. Ontario is the only province requiring referral directly to another individual physician if the treating physician has a religious or moral objection to providing the specified service. Ontario physicians had appealed a lower court ruling upholding the referral requirement. The Ontario Court of Appeals found that the physician referral mechanism struck the appropriate balance between a physician’s right to freedom of religion and a patient’s right to medical services.
In April a British Colombia (B.C.) court retried James Oler, a member of the FLDS Church, on charges that he unlawfully removed his underage daughter from Canada in 2004 to marry her to a 24-year-old U.S. citizen in Nevada. The court found Oler guilty after retrial, and in August sentenced him to 12 months in prison. A trial judge had acquitted Oler of the same charges following a trial in 2017 based on what the B.C Court of Appeal deemed to be the trial court’s erroneous interpretation of the required elements of the offense. The B.C. Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal in 2018 and ordered a new trial after the government appealed.
In February a federal trial court, which sits below the Supreme Court, stayed on procedural grounds seven of eight cases brought in 2018 by religious and other organizations seeking to reverse the denial of their federal grant applications. The federal government denied their applications over issues regarding an attestation the federal government imposed as a condition of receiving funding for the Canada Summer Jobs Program that year. For the first time, organizations were required to attest that their core mandate and the job for which they planned to use the federal funds respected the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as well as other rights and associated case law. The plaintiffs stated the attestation infringed on their rights to freedom of religion and of expression. The attestation included language that such rights “include reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, color, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” The court stayed seven of the cases until the first case, filed by Toronto and Area Right to Life (TRTL), is heard, based on a finding that there was “substantial overlap” of the legal issues involved in the eight cases.
In late 2018, the federal government made changes to the 2019 summer jobs application’s attestation, with new language focusing on activities for which the funds could not be used, rather than on the values of any given organization. According to media reports, TRTL filed a second lawsuit after it was also denied a grant in 2019. The cases were pending at year’s end.
In March the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal heard the appeal of a 2017 lower court ruling in a decade-long case concerning whether the province could fund non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools. In 2017, the lower court had ruled that providing public funding for non-Catholic students to attend Catholic schools discriminated against secular schools and those of other religious groups in favor of Catholic education; it ordered the province to stop funding those students by the end of June 2018. The court had also ordered the government of Saskatchewan and the provincial Catholic School Boards Association to pay 960,000 Canadian dollars (C$) ($738,000) toward the opposing public school board’s legal costs. The Court of Appeal stayed the imposition of the funding order pending resolution of the appeal. At year’s end, the appeal remained pending.
On January 27, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement for International Holocaust Memorial Day, stating that Canada must also acknowledge its “own history of anti-Semitism, and its devastating results.” He pledged to “stand guard and speak out against anti-Semitism in our communities, to embrace our differences, and to find strength in our diversity.” On May 1, the prime minister issued a statement for Holocaust Memorial Day in which he said anti-Semitism was on the rise and stating, “We will not be silent in the face of oppression, or indifferent in the face of hate. We will always speak out against anti-Semitism, discrimination, and hatred in all its forms, and together, we will counter them.”
On May 7, Prime Minister Trudeau attended the National Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony and delivered remarks in which he noted that “once again, people filled with hate are emerging from the shadows. Hateful words and speeches are spreading on social media and spreading across our daily lives.” He also stated, “The lessons of the Holocaust are at risk of being forgotten if we stand idly by, if we remain silent in the face of these events,” and that “it is our solemn duty as politicians, as leaders, as human beings, to stand united with one voice, and to say without equivocation, that anti-Semitic hatred has no place in Canada, or anywhere else.”
In June the government announced a new anti-racism strategy for 2019-2022 with the stated objective of combating systemic racism and discrimination of all kinds, including discrimination based on religion. The strategy also envisaged providing funding to empower religious minorities and others with expertise in addressing various forms of racism and discrimination and changing attitudes by increasing awareness of the historical roots of racism and discrimination. As part of that strategy, the country adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.