Freedom of Corporate Religion?

A number of cases now working their way through the US court system and attracting a great deal of commentary, some of which Josh Blackman summarizes and/or links to in this post, ask an interesting question: can a corporation challenge a requirement that it provide its employees with health insurance covering, among a great many other things, contraception, on the basis that this infringes its (owners’) religious freedom (the so-called “contraception mandate”)? A corporation, of course, does not worship, or believe anything. So can it be entitled to exercise a religious right? I am not qualified to answer this question as a matter of US law, but I thought I’d say a few words about how it might play out in Canada.

Could a Canadian corporation challenge a law on the basis that it infringed religious freedom? The answer seems to be sometimes yes, and sometimes maybe. The foundational case on freedom of religion, and indeed one of very the first Charter cases, was  R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295. As the style of clause makes clear, the respondent was a corporation. It was accused of operating a store on a Sunday, contrary to the Lord’s Day Act, R.S.C. 1970, c. L‑13. It claimed that the statute was contrary to the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of religion because it enforced a Christian religious observance. And sure enough, the government said that that didn’t matter, because as a corporation, Big M could not possibly have a right to freedom of religion. Justice Dickson (as he then was) rejected this argument:

Any accused, whether corporate or individual, may defend a criminal charge by arguing that the law under which the charge is brought is constitutionally invalid. Big M is urging that the law under which it has been charged is inconsistent with s. 2(a) of the Charter and by reason of s. 52 of the Constitution Act, 1982, it is of no force or effect.

The argument that the respondent, by reason of being a corporation, is incapable of holding religious belief and therefore incapable of claiming rights under s. 2(a) of the Charter, confuses the nature of this appeal. A law which itself infringes religious freedom is, by that reason alone, inconsistent with s. 2(a) of the Charter and it matters not whether the accused is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, atheist, agnostic or whether an individual or a corporation. It is the nature of the law, not the status of the accused, that is in issue. (Emphasis mine)

But there is a very important qualification:

 As the respondent submits, if the legislation under review had a secular purpose and the accused was claiming that it interfered with his religious freedom, the status of the accused and the nature of his belief might be relevant: it is one thing to claim that the legislation is itself unconstitutional, it is quite another to claim a “constitutional exemption” from otherwise valid legislation, which offends one’s religious tenets.

This possible exception―possible, because Justice Dickson is not deciding that the status of the claimant is relevant to, much less dispositive of, exemption claims―might actually be much more important than the rule in Big M.  That case was probably unique; Canada is not about to re-enact the Lord’s Day Act, or any other law enforcing or prohibiting religious observances. Claims for religious exemptions, by contrast, have arisen in the last few years, and will continue to arise.

One such case was Alberta v. Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, 2009 SCC 37, [2009] 2 S.C.R. 567, in which Hutterites tried to obtain an exemption from the requirement that their drivers’ licences bear their pictures, which contradicted their interpretation of the Second Commandment. Unfortunately, it is not entirely clear what sort of entity the colony is, legally speaking―is it a corporation or something else? I am guessing though that it is a corporation of some sort, since it sued in its own name. Indeed, it is remarkable enough that no individual Hutterite was a party in the case, considering that it is individuals who applied for drivers’ licences and were required to submit to picture-taking contrary to their faith. Still, that was not at all an issue in the case. Perhaps this is simply because a violation individuals’ religious freedom was so obvious (though the majority held that it was justified under s. 1 of the Charter). Perhaps the Colony had a sort of implicit public interest standing, if such a thing can exist. Perhaps the key is that even if the Colony is, legally, a corporation, it is an obviously religious one, in a way that most ordinary commercial corporations are not. The most we can say with confidence is that this case does not confirm Justice Dickson’s caveat about corporations seeking religious exemptions; but nor does it conclusively put that caveat to rest.

So much for the law, as best I understand it. I will try to have some more theoretical comments on the issue in the coming days.

Freedom and Institutions

The who study the question of religious freedom often wonder why it should benefit and protect not only individual believers, but also religious institutions. Application of religious freedom to institutions such as the Catholic Church―institutions which, needless to say, are not often themselves models of internal liberalism, equality, or democracy―generates a good deal of criticism. Among other things, the critics point out that religious institutions seem unique in benefiting from a right which, like other rights, normally attaches to individuals. Indeed, many people―and particularly the non-religious, the agnostics and the atheists―do not exercise their beliefs through institutions. They only claim religious freedom (which, it is generally agreed, includes the freedom not to hold any religious belief) for themselves, not for any institutions. Why should believers be different?

But this story from the BBC suggests that they might not be different. It tells of an “atheist church” gathering in London, singing, sermons, and all. As the BBC reports,

The audience – overwhelmingly young, white and middle class – appear excited to be part of something new and speak of the void they felt on a Sunday morning when they decided to abandon their Christian faith.

Now I, for one, find it somewhat perplexing. As Leo Tolstoy supposedly said when invited to join a temperance society, “there’s no need to get together in order not to drink. If you get together, you might as well raise a glass to the occasion.” But never mind. Many people strongly prefer to live their beliefs through institutions―whatever these beliefs are, even if they are non-beliefs. Institutions are an inextricable part of the belief. Attack the institution, and you risk destroying the belief. Claims that we can respect religious freedom without making room for religious institutions―or, it would seem, that we could respect the freedom of non-believers without making room for institutions of irreligion, whatever shape they might take in the years to come―are at best misguided, and hypocritical at worst.

Besides, it is not really true that religious belief is unique among rights in being bound up with institutions. Just as freedom of religion has its churches, freedom of expression has its press (sometimes expressly acknowledged in constitutional texts, as in the First Amendment of the U.S. constitution), and, as Yale’s Dean Robert Post argues, its universities (as I explain here). So too the individual right to an impartial trial is connected with institutional protections for courts. And there are probably other examples too. Once you start thinking about it, religious freedom is neither as exceptional nor as exceptionable as some would have us think.

But institutions, however indispensable for freedom, can also stifle it. Universities, according to Dean Post, must be free to penalize professors and students who do not play by the generally accepted rules of the academic game; churches can impose penance and excommunicate their heretics. This is fine―this is part of these institutions’ freedom, which in turn is an inextricable part of how individuals exercise their own freedom―so long as there are alternatives. So long as an excommunicated heretic is free to found his own church, and to criticize the one that rejected him; so long as the mad scientist is free to pursue and publish his work outside the official ivory tower, there is no justification for interfering with the institutions which, internally, rely on authority more than on freedom. But there is a standing danger of such institutions growing so powerful as to capture the state and rely on its coercive machinery to forbid the expression of views disagreeable to them. That danger―the danger of the marketplace of ideas being ruled by state-backed monopolies―is what we must guard against.

Facing Justice

In a decision delivered this morning, R. v. N.S., 2012 SCC 72, the Supreme Court has ruled that the rights of a witness who, for sincere religious reasons, wishes to testify with her face covered and those of an accused against whom she testifies must be balanced on a case-by-case basis, eschewing a bright-line rule, though suggesting that in doubt the accused’s right to a fair trial prevails and militates in favour of an order that the witness remove the face covering. (If you want a less convoluted version of this summary, look at media titles: most, including the National Post, the Toronto Star and all the French-language media―Radio-Canada, Le Devoir, La Presse,  and Le Journal de Montréal―go for something like “Niqab allowed in some cases,” but the CBC and the Globe & Mail go for variations on “Judge can order niqab to be removed.” I wanted to avoid this glass half-empty or half-full problem.)

The appellant, N.S., is due to testify at the trial of two relatives whom she accuses of raping her. She wants to do it while wearing a niqab. The accused say she ought to be ordered to remove it while testifying, because not seeing her face prevents the trier of fact (judge or jury members) from making accurate credibility findings and their lawyers from cross-examining her effectively, thus jeopardizing the fairness of their trial. There are thus fundamental rights involved on both sides, freedom of religion and the right to a fair trial. What gives?

First of all, says Chief Justice McLachlin for the majority, it is important to check whether the witness’s insistence on covering her face is motivated by a sincere belief. The first instance judge in this case did not conduct that inquiry properly, so the rest of the reasons is hypothetical―it only presumes that this first requirement has been satisfied.

The second question to be answered is whether allowing the witness to wear a niqab actually compromises trial fairness in the circumstances. Where the evidence the witness will give is uncontested, that is not the case. When credibility is at issue, however, fairness will be compromised. The Chief Justice rejects the claim of the appellant and some interveners that there is nothing much to be learned from seeing a witness’s face. The common law has always proceeded on the contrary assumption, she points out, and while such assumptions are known to have sometimes resulted from unfounded misconceptions and even myths, they should not be discarded without any evidence that such is the case.

If it finds that both a sincere religious belief and trial fairness are implicated in the circumstances of a case, the court must attempt to reconcile them by accommodating both. However, it may well be that there is no accommodation which upholds both rights to be found.

If so, the rights at stake must be balanced to determine which is to prevail, again, in the circumstances of the case. “The question,” says the Chief Justice, “is whether the salutary effects of requiring the witness to remove the niqab, including the effects on trial fairness, outweigh the deleterious effects of doing so, including the effects on freedom of religion” (par. 34). The Chief Justice sets out a number of factors for courts to consider. On the side of freedom of religion, they include the degree of impairment which a particular witness’s freedom would suffer if she is ordered to remove the niqab, but also the risk that witnesses will simply refuse to come forward if they cannot comply with their religious obligations and thus crimes―very serious crimes like rape in this case―will go unreported or unpunished. On the side of trial fairness, there is the extent to which credibility is central to the case, the stage of the proceedings, and whether the trier of fact is a judge or a jury. The list, however, is rather tentative, and non-exhaustive.

Finally, the Chief Justice turns to the proposed alternatives to this uncertain balancing―clear rules either allowing or prohibiting the niqab at all times. Always allowing it, she says, undermines trial fairness and increases the risk of wrongful convictions. Always prohibiting it, on the other hand, in the name of making courts religiously neutral spaces, “is inconsistent with Canadian jurisprudence, courtroom practice, and our tradition of requiring state institutions and actors to accommodate sincerely held religious beliefs insofar as possible” (par. 60). It infringes religious freedom even when doing so does nothing for trial fairness. And, the Chief Justice points out, it is simply not true that we evacuate religion from the courtroom―witnesses have the option to swear on the Bible, the Koran, etc. The state must be neutral towards religion, but it should not hinder it gratuitously.

The two other opinions urge the adoption of the clear rules that the majority rejects.

While concurring in the disposition of the appeal, Justice Lebel, writing for himself and Justice Rothstein, argues that trial fairness and the openness of courts are too fundamental ever to be compromised. Evidence that might be unchallenged at one stage of the trial could be called in question at the next. Anyway, while special rules departing from ordinary procedures can be put in place in order to facilitate communication between the various actors of a trial, a niqab only impedes it, “on the basis of the assertion of a religious belief in circumstances in which the sincerity and strength of the belief are difficult to assess or even to question” (par. 77).

Justice Abella, dissenting, takes the contrary position. In her view, a witness should always be allowed to wear a niqab, except in cases where identity itself is at issue. Otherwise, while “seeing more of a witness’ facial expressions is better than seeing less” (par. 82), seeing less does not prevent the trier of fact from assessing credibility. Anyway, the law already makes any number of exceptions that allow people to testify in ways that prevent their demeanour from being visible to and assessed by the trier of fact. That a witness must testify with her face open is only a general expectation, not a general rule, while the risk of being required to breach one’s religious duty will deter women from acting as witnesses, and is thus a sign of exclusion of religious minorities.

The contrast of style between the majority, on the one hand, and the concurrence and the dissent is as strong as the substantive difference. The majority’s opinion is rather dry and legalistic. The concurrence and the dissent are thick with talk of values and quite impassioned.

For my part, I think that the majority has it right. There really are two very serious rights at issue here. Justice Lebel’s snide comment about the possible insincerity of niqab-wearers and Justice Abella’s claim that since we already compromise fairness some of the time there is nothing wrong with compromising it some more do not persuade me. Case-by-case balancing―although the Chief Justice’s comments suggest that in practice the balance will be tipped towards trial fairness and thus ordering the witness to remove the niqab― might be frustrating, but I don’t think that there is a better way to resolve the clash of rights.

Religious Freedom Is (a) Right

The Globe’s Doug Saunders has produced a very unfortunate op-ed this morning, arguing that “religious freedom” is at best redundant, at worst positively harmful, and that Canada should not be in the business of promoting it. The occasion for his outburst is the upcoming creation of the Office of Religious Freedom within the Department of Foreign Affairs. That may well be a poor idea, even a sop by the government to religious conservatives. Even if Canada should be in the business of promoting individual rights abroad, there is no reason why religious freedom should be privileged over other fundamental liberties. Yet Mr. Saunders’ arguments are confused and go too far. It is one thing to say that the Office of Religious Freedom is a bad idea; it is another to claim, as he does, that “religious freedom” is either a useless concept or a slogan for religious bigotry and repression.

Mr. Saunders points out that “[t]he phrase ‘religious freedom’ is evoked [sic―I wonder if he meant ‘invoked’]” by all manner of intolerant groups who, in fact, want the state to repress other religious groups with whom they disagree. He argues that “the most important religious freedom is freedom from religion”―the freedom not to have someone else’s religion imposed on you by the state. As for the freedom of belief and worship, it is sufficiently “protected in constitutional freedoms of speech, thought, conscience, assembly and basic equality.” The additional category of “freedom of religion” is hopelessly vague and in any event unnecessary. Indeed, says Mr. Saunders,

the core values of our common culture, the things that make us Western and modern – democracy, equality, the rule of law – were forged through the rejection of religion and the overthrow of spiritual authority.

If there’s anything we should be doing abroad, he concludes, it’s ensuring the separation of church and state. Not fighting for “religious freedom,” whatever that means.

One wonders whether Mr. Saunders has seriously engaged with what has been said and written about religious freedom in the last 300-odd years. His claims about the history and meaning of religious freedom are badly mistaken.

Start with the history. It is not the case that democracy, equality, and the Rule of Law developed in opposition to religion. Arguably the most influential defender of such values was also one of the first great champions of religious freedom―John Locke. So were the American Founders. It would have been much more accurate to say that these values developed in parallel, indeed that religious freedom was historically the first individual freedom. The sovereignty of the individual was first asserted in matters of faith, well before it was thought of asserting it in the realm of politics too.

Now to the meaning of “religious freedom”. Like that of any other individual right, it can be said to be vague. It is not exactly clear what “freedom of expression” means, or “equality”, or “liberty”. That said, it is indisputable that freedom of religion has a negative aspect―that it is, among other things, a right not to have the faith of others imposed on you. The very first Supreme Court case dealing with freedom of religion, R. v. Big M Drug Mart Ltd., [1985] 1 S.C.R. 295, was about that. Other rights, by the way, have a similar “negative” aspect―freedom of speech, for instance, is (or should be, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s decisions to the contrary) not just the freedom to say what you want, but also the freedom not to say what the government wants you to say. That doesn’t detract from the importance of the “positive” side of the right. In the case of religion, we might speak, following the U.S. First Amendment, of the “free exercise” of religion, to go along with non-establishment. And free exercise of religion is not reducible to the other rights on which Mr. Saunders wants to rely for its protection (except maybe freedom of conscience, but this happens (unfortunately) to be poorly theorized and, insofar as it has a modicum of clear meaning, it refers to a protection for specifically non-religious conscientious beliefs). For example, the Sikh boy who felt a religious duty to wear a kirpan to his public school wasn’t exercising a right to free speech (his kirpan was hidden inside his clothing, he wasn’t displaying it to send a message to anyone), or freedom of association (it wasn’t about his right to associate with coreligionists, or anyone else for that matter). It was straightforwardly a claim of religious freedom―a claim, in Lord Acton’s words, “to be unhindered by man in the fulfillment of duty to God.”

That such claims by others can be abusive or self-serving does not mean that we should renounce our commitment to religious freedom. Whether it is a good idea to single it out for promotion abroad is an entirely separate question.

The Fantasy of State Neutrality

This is a translation of my op-ed that that was published yesterday on the website of La Presse.

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The Parti Québécois proposes, if it wins the elections, to enact a « Charte de la laïcité » (Charter of secularism) for Québec. This charter would, among other things, prohibit civil servants from  wearing “ostentatious religious symbols.” This prohibition would, to be sure, be motivated by a noble principle, the neutrality of the state. But it is not the right means to realise this principle, and is discriminatory.

Let us grant, first, that the state has a duty of neutrality; that is, it may not grant privileges or favours to a group of its citizens that it does grant to others.

Let us grant, too, that this duty of neutrality applies not only to the contents of legislation but also to its administration. This means that civil servants and other state agents, entrusted with the application of laws, must act impartially, without favouring one citizen over another, including on the basis of his or her belonging to any group, whether religious, ethnic, or other.

Let us grant, finally, that the administration of the law must not only be neutral but also appear to be neutral. It is not enough for a civil servant’s decision to actually be neutral. It is also necessary that a citizen, at least a well-informed and objective citizen, have no reason to doubt the decision’s neutrality.

The prohibition of ostentatious religious symbols would aim at ensuring the appearance of civil servants’ neutrality. At work, at the moment of applying the law, civil servants represent the state rather than the religious groups to which they belong in private life. If they are allowed to identify with members of particular religious groups, do they not risk favouring their co-religionists? Do they not, above all, risk provoking, among the citizens they serve, a reasonable apprehension of bias?

No. The worry that, for example, a civil servant wearing the headscarf will fail to discharge her duty of neutrality is neither objective nor reasonable. The idea that the physical appearance of civil servants must be neutralized in order that they may exercise their functions impartially belongs to the realm of fantasy or hypocrisy. A person’s physical appearance usually reveals his or her belonging to all manner of groups: to a gender, to a race, to a certain age group. We would not think of imposing the burqa as the uniform for civil servants (male as well as female of course) in order to avoid letting citizens know whether they are served by a man or a woman, a White or a Black, a youth or an old person.

We know that the civil servant, the police officer, the judge whom we face belongs to one or many such groups. Yet we ought, as citizens, expect them to act in good faith and with neutrality.

Religious belonging is not different from other forms. It is, sometimes, easily identifiable. But it is no more reasonable to doubt the impartiality of a civil servant who wears a headscarf for the sole reason that she is Muslim than it would be to doubt her impartiality because she is a woman. Prohibiting civil servants from wearing religious symbols is irrational.

It is also discriminatory. Not only does it discriminate between religions, since some religions – including that of the majority of Quebeckers – do not require believers to wear religious symbols of the sort that is now sought to be banned. It also discriminates between members of the same religious group, in the case of religions, such as Islam and Judaism, which impose the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols on one gender but not the other. Thus a prohibition proposed out of a concern for neutrality and equality between men and women would prevent Muslim women, but not Muslim men, from serving the Québec state.

The ban on ostentatious religious symbols in the civil service would be irrational and unjust. It would be a simplistic measure, favouring appearances at the detriment of a real equality and a true concern for living together.

The Good of Religion

Yesterday I attended a discussion with Robert P. George, the Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton (which of course does not have a law school!) and one of the leading religious conservative public intellectuals in the United States. The topic was “Religious Liberty and the Human Good.” David Blankenhorn – perhaps best known recently as a failed would-be expert in the trial on the constitutionality of Proposition 8, which attempted to change California’s constitution to prohibit same-sex marriage – was the host. He is clearly smarting from the Prop 8 experience, and took some shots at President Obama along the way, but it was quite interesting nonetheless, so here’s a recap.

According to prof. George, freedom of religion is valuable for two reasons.

The less important one is that it allows the existence of organizations that provide all sorts of important social services and are authority structures that act as a buffer between the state and the individual, so that the state does not become the only source of authority. Religious organizations help prevent tyranny, which the judiciary alone is not able to do. For my part, I do not find this persuasive. There are many alternative power centres (the press and NGOs for example) and networks (online social networks for example). Religious structures are, at most, some of many, and perhaps not the best candidates as oppression-resisters (the Catholic church, for example, has a long record of collaboration with temporal powers, as well as one of resistance to them). And of course religious structures can be oppressive in their own right – though they need not be.

The more important reason why freedom of religion is important is that it serves what prof. George called “the good of religion” – that is the human ability to ask, and answer for oneself, fundamental questions about human nature, life, mortality, free will, etc. A life spent without thinking about these questions is impoverished; and it is important to have one’s own answers to them, and to live with integrity in light of the answers one comes up with. Even if these answers are not “religious” as the term is usually understood – even if they are atheistic for instance – they are worthy of protection, because it is the questioning that constitutes “the good of religion.” That seems exactly right to me, whether or not “the good of religion” is the best name for what prof. George is getting at.

A related term (which I might be more inclined to use instead) is “conscience”. Prof. George defines it as “one’s last best judgment informed by reason, belief, or faith as to what one is required to do or not to do.” Referring to Cardinal Newman’s take on the subject, he insists that it is not “in the business of permissions.”

Mr. Blakenhorn brought up the subject of “reason” in religious belief. He is mad at Judge Vaughn Walker, who presided over the trial in the Prop. 8 case, Perry v. Schwarzenegger, for finding that religious motivation could not constitute a “rational basis” for prohibiting same-sex marriage.  Prof. George agrees that religion has an element of reason – we can understand someone acting on his answers to “ultimate questions,” for instance – and argues that Judge Walker has an impoverished, “fideistic” view of religion as consisting only of faith, without a rational element. But it seems to me that the important question here, which he did not get into at all, is whether religious reason can count as a valid one for public law purposes. Even if we agree – as I do – that a person acting on religious (or conscientious) beliefs is not acting irrationally, it is a different matter whether the state (and thus voters) are entitled to act on such reasons – and still a different matter whether they are entitled to act on such reasons only – in making public policy. This is the Rawlsian public reason conundrum, which I cannot possibly get into here (and don’t have firm views about anyway).

Finally, prof. George spoke about religious exemptions – cases where a law that is generally not meant to punish or impede religious belief or practice has that effect on some believers. He thinks that these believers should be exempted from the application of such laws, unless the state can show that not granting the exemption is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling state objective. There is, however, an interesting question about who – courts or legislatures – should be deciding whether any given case comes satisfies these criteria. That is roughly what I argued in my LL.M. thesis, which was about religious exemptions, so I am glad to have my thoughts confirmed. Now why don’t the law reviews to which I submitted the paper seem interested to publish it?