How should society recognize the uniqueness of religious freedom?
How unique are religious communities and the institutions they form? Our society often sees them as just another type of association – like a club of people who share a common interest or activity. But are they really the same?
This fall several court cases and parliamentary committees will explore the issue.
Through Bill C-51 the government wants to remove Criminal Code protections that make it an offence to disrupt a worship service. They argue broader protections are already in place and specific protection for religious groups are not necessary.
But this all depends on whether a worship service is the same type of gathering as a public lecture or a bridge club.
The unique nature of religious institutions will also be considered by the Supreme Court in two November cases.
In the Wall case the question is whether courts should intrude into the membership decisions of churches. Historically they have not – respecting that the mission and purpose of a religious organization is a matter of shared belief and theology. Courts have recognized they don’t have such expertise and shouldn’t take sides.
Civil and employment law have long applied to churches the same as to other private organizations, but should the legal system also rule on religious doctrine and membership?
The other end-of-year case (technically consisting of two appeals from different provinces) involves Trinity Western University and the integrity of its Christian educational purpose and ethos. To be accredited by various law societies, must Trinity Western compromise the Community Covenant Agreement that sets out what is expected of staff, students and faculty when pursuing a Christian education there?
Each of these cases focuses on the distinctive nature of a religious community.
Explaining this difference will become more important as increasing numbers of Canadians no longer attend religious services. How are politicians, judges, civil servants, journalists and academics to understand the nature of religious freedom if they have not themselves experienced the depth and breadth of church life?
Most Canadians are familiar with the bond that forms within a team of athletes, firefighters, police officers or soldiers. The bond unites them, and allows immediate acceptance to be granted to those who share the bond.
Even more, followers of Christ are united by adoption into God’s family. In Jesus we become spiritual brothers and sisters. We become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, what the Bible calls a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation.
What other club or association in society simultaneously invokes the bonds of family, nation and vocation?
Some religious traditions also share a belief in sacred space consecrated for worship, and sacred texts containing and symbolizing God’s words to humanity. These have far deeper meaning than the common notions of property, possession or even public association.
The bond in religious communities transcends all other bonds. When worshippers meet, we gather not for ourselves as individuals for our own edification or interest, but as a congregation bound together in offering praise to God. It is unlike any other gathering, be it political, social, educational or economic.
We are members of the Body of Christ – we become part of something greater than ourselves. In fact our identity is not self-constructed, but can only be understood in the context of the greater body and especially its Head, Jesus Christ, to whom we are now bondslaves.
While most associations are a sum of their individual parts, the Church is so much more. To call it an association does not fully express its nature.
Religious freedom is specifically mentioned in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it refers to a distinct dimension of life. Its importance is widely recognized and deemed necessary to guarantee in laws worldwide.
The Charter also guarantees freedom of conscience, thought, belief and opinion, plus expression – freedom of the press, of peaceful assembly, of association.
These other freedoms would cover most of the activities of a church, but religion is specifically mentioned because there is something unique about religious freedom, which includes the communal expression of faith in something that transcends and to which we are bound.
We are to celebrate publicly our bond in Christ and all it means for Christ to be our Saviour and Lord. But we need to find new ways to help our society understand the uniqueness of our being in community that is so different from any other mere human association.
Bruce J. Clemenger is President of The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.
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