OTTAWA (CCN) — After an “avalanche” of letters and testimony from faith leaders, the Justice Committee has amended Bill C-51 to keep protections for religious leaders and worship services.
The committee amended the omnibus bill Nov. 8, the day after the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops released an open letter to the justice minister dated Oct. 31 from more than 60 religious leaders and groups urging the government to keep the Section 176 that protects religious leaders from being assaulted or obstructed in their work, and protects religious services from being disrupted.
“I was persuaded by the testimony of people who came before us, including His Eminence Cardinal Collins,” said Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, chair of the Justice Committee in an interview. Collins testified via video conferencing on Oct. 30, along with the president of the CCCB Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil and Bill Simpson, a criminal lawyer, who attended the session in Ottawa.
“We are extremely pleased that the Standing Committee has recommended to Parliament that protection of religious services remain in the Criminal Code,” said Neil McCarthy, a spokesperson for Collins. “The advocacy efforts of many diverse faith communities played a critical role and reminds us that we need to continue to be engaged in these important issues. Certainly from a Catholic perspective, we will continue to do so.”
“There was no value to deleting the section,” Housefather said, noting that even though it had seldom been used and “theoretically it could have been covered” by other sections in the Criminal Code, this section “let people of faith know they were recognized in a special way in the Criminal Code.”
Housefather said he will return the amended Bill C-51 to the House of Commons Nov 20 at report stage of third reading.
“I’m very, very hopeful the government will support this amendment,” Housefather said.
Unless the government chooses to make their support for the amendments known beforehand, they will let the committee know its position at report stage, he said.
“We tried hard to work with the minister and the department to convince her as we always do that the committee’s wishes makes sense,” he said.
“It was a matter of listening to everyone and hearing what people had to say,” Housefather said. Not only did the committee hear from witnesses, but from constituents who wrote letters, emails and made phone calls. “I do appreciate all who did reach out to MPs. It’s only when you reach out that people know what you are thinking.”
Housefather said all three parties agreed to keep Section 176, though there was some disagreement on how to update the words “clergyman or minister.” The bill now refers to “officials of religious and spiritual services” to better include indigenous spirituality and other non-Christian forms of worship and makes the language gender-neutral.
NDP MP Alistair MacGregor told the committee he had not noticed the deletion of Section 176 until he received a “trickle” of correspondence that evolved “into an absolute avalanche.”
“I think at first I was prepared to accept the government’s argument that the offences in this part of the Criminal Code can most certainly be covered in other sections, but I think I’ve been absolutely convinced that it needs to be kept in the Criminal Code, simply because it has very significant symbolic value for the people involved,” he said.