Day Five: Matthew Harrington

Religious dissent

Université de Montréal

One of the most disappointing trends in Supreme Court jurisprudence is the increasing tendency to treat religion as a purely individual, private matter. In hindsight, Syndicat Northcrest v Amselem, 2004 SCC 47, [2004] 2 SCR 551 and Multani v Commission scolaire Marguerite-Bourgeoys, 2006 SCC 6, [2006] 1 SCR 256, which seemed at the time to open up a wide range of new claims based on freedom of religion, appear to have been a short-lived detour. Since those decisions, the Court has had difficulty attempting to define the extent and breadth of religion claims in the public square, especially when those claims involve the rights of religious groups. Three dissents, in particular, show how the Court is moving away from the traditional notion of freedom of religion and slipping into a mindset that privileges irreligion rather than neutrality.

Justice Abella in Alberta v Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 SCR 567

Hutterian Bretheren marks a significant turning point in the Supreme Court’s approach to the protection of religious liberty under Section 2(a) of the Charter.  The case involved a challenge to Alberta’s requirement that persons seeking a driver’s licence submit to having their photo taken. The Wilson Colony objected on the grounds that taking a photo would violate the Second Commandment prohibition on the making of “graven images”. The majority rejected the claim, asserting that the deleterious effects on the Hutterites’ ability to practise their religion were minimal. This is because the law in question did not deprive the Hutterites of a meaningful choice concerning the religious practises at issue.  Instead, all the law did was “impose a cost” on their choice. In a rather shocking passage, the majority then cavalierly asserted that the Hutterites could simply hire people to drive them to doctor’s appointments or contract with commercial trucking firms to transport their supplies and produce.  After all, what was at issue was “not a right, but a privilege”.

In one of two separate dissents, Justice Abella rightly took the majority to task for failing to give adequate respect to the religious interests involved. Abella J rightly chided the majority for failing to adequately balance the competing interests. Her main focus was on the harm to the Hutterite community. She noted that the photo requirement deprived the Wilson Colony of any meaningful choice because it forced them into a position of either giving up their beliefs regarding the Second Commandment or give up the self-sufficiency of the community. In effect, the majority’s solution (“hire drivers”) forced them to abandon their independence. There was no choice: they either violate the Second Commandment and get photos, or violate their beliefs about community independence and hire drivers. Of equal significance was Abella J’s observation that the majority was essentially adopting a hierarchy of law when it described the issuance of driver’s licences as a “privilege”. Abella J rightly noted that Section 1 of the Charter knows no difference between laws that are compulsory and those that merely grant privileges. Thus, she correctly dismissed the suggestion that the government’s granting of a privilege (whatever that is) is somehow subject to some lesser form of scrutiny.

Justice Deschamps in Bruker v Marcovitz, 2007 SCC 54, [2007] 3 SCR 607

Brucker involved a claim for damages by a wife against her husband for his failure to grant her a religious divorce as stipulated in the civil divorce settlement agreement. The Supreme Court dismissed the husband’s religion claim on the grounds that he was being insincere, and that performing the religious act in question would impose only a non-trivial burden upon him.

Justice Deschamps’ dissent begins with the very basic observation that Canadian courts should not be in the business of determining whether religious obligations are valid or not. In this case, Mrs. Bruker was not seeking compensation for an inability to remarry under the civil law; on the contrary, she wanted to be paid for not being able to get a religious marriage. How could a civil court possibly assess damages for not being able to obtain the benefits of a religious rite? Closely related to this point is Deschamps J’s observation that a contract to perform a religious right is no contract at all. This is because a contract in Québec requires that it concern the performance of a “juridical act”, which is effectively something the civil courts can supervise. A religious divorce cannot be a juridical act since the granting of it requires the cooperation of religious authorities over whom the courts have no power.

Justice Deschamps clearly has the better argument, and one that is more consistent with the then-existing precedent. Under any other circumstances, it is hard to imagine a Canadian court requiring a person to take Holy Communion or even say the Lord’s Prayer against his will. After all, in Amselem, the court would not even require the claimant to honour a real estate contract. Yet, here, the court seemed oddly content to penalise a man for not participating in a religious divorce. In order to reach this result, the majority took upon itself to make a judicial determination of what Judaism required in the process of getting a divorce. Justice Deschamps was on firm ground in warning that the courts should stay far away from this type of entanglement.

Justices Côté and Brown in Law Society of British Columbia v Trinity Western University, 2018 SCC 32, [2018] 2 SCR 293

The TWU case may be the most unfortunate decision ever rendered by the Supreme Court. Couched in the language of diversity, the various opinions making up the majority reek of intolerance. It is clear from the outset that seven of the justices have no time for those who hold to the traditional view of marriage, and were willing to constrict the public square in such a way as to evict those who refuse to conform to current notions of equality. As in Bruker, the majority took upon itself to determine the appropriate content of a religious belief or practice.

The dissent by Justices Coté and Brown is an eloquent statement of what true diversity in a multicultural and multi-religious state entails. It reminds us of that real tolerance lies in ensuring that everyone has access to the public square — even those who hold opinions others might find offensive. Brown and Coté JJ correctly point out that a secular state is not one which enforces irreligion, but rather, which permits both the believer and the areligious to go about their business without hindrance or favour from the state. Thus, neither courts nor administrative agencies ought to be concerned with the “public perception” of what freedom of religion entails. On the contrary, the role of courts in these cases is “not to produce social consensus, but to protect the democratic commitment to live together in peace”. The fact that some people are offended by the TWU community’s beliefs should be of no concern to either the Law Society or the courts. The role of government is not to produce social consensus, but to protect the democratic commitment to live together in peace, even with people who have the temerity to hold opinions which we find reprehensible. Consequently, the result in TWU is to drive those who hold unpopular opinions from the public square.

Another significant aspect of the dissent is the criticism of Doré/Loyola framework. While the dissent notes that TWU was not a proper vehicle for reconsidering the Doré, it nonetheless criticised the majority for the deference it showed to the Law Society. In the view of the majority, an administrative decision-maker need only show that its decision “gives effect, as fully as possible to the Charter protections at stake given the particular statutory mandate”.  This effectively means that Charter rights are guaranteed only so far as they are consistent with the objectives of the enabling statute. Or, as Côté and Brown JJ noted, “[w]hen push comes to shove, statutory objectives — including, presumably, unconstitutional statutory objectives — trump the [Charter] right”.

Similarly, the dissent rejected the idea that “Charter values” are deserving of independent protection. More importantly, the dissent rightly rejected the idea that Charter values could be used to trump a specific Charter right. The obvious reason for this is that “values” are highly contested, so that allowing judges to decided cases on “shared” or “fundamental” values is an utterly specious exercise. As the dissenters write, “[i]t is therefore not open to the state to impose values that it deems to be ‘shared’ upon those who, for religious reasons, take a contrary view. The Charter protects the rights of religious adherents, among others, to participate in Canadian public life in a way that is consistent with their own values.” One hopes that a future Supreme Court will reconsider and abandon the Doré framework in its entirety, and reverse this intolerant decision.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

One thought on “Day Five: Matthew Harrington”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s