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47% of Countries have laws against blasphemy, apostasy or defamation of religion

27 Nov

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A new analysis * by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life points out that several recent incidents have drawn international attention to laws and policies prohibiting blasphemy…

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U.N. chief says crises show need for interfaith amity

27 Nov

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VIENNA (Reuters)- The violent crises in Syria, Gaza and Mali show how important it is for different religions to work together to promote understanding rather than sow hatred, United Nations Secretary…

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Obama Drafts Drone Rulebook to Codify Kill List Process – The New American

27 Nov

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Obama Drafts Drone Rulebook to Codify Kill List ProcessThe New AmericanApart from Holder’s effort to justify the unjustifiable killing of thousands by drone without hint of due process, it is shocking to the conscience that such a rulebook doesn’t…

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Charitable trusts and advancement of religion: On a whim and a prayer?

26 Nov

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The advancement of religion is a controversial head of charitable trusts: whilst its foundations are based on tenets of intangible belief systems, New Zealand law, alongside other common law jurisdictions, supports the notion that the public…

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Should Canada Promote Religious Freedom Abroad?

25 Nov

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Canada’s hub for international affairs….

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Is Egypt Going Backward on Religious Freedom? – Al-Monitor

18 Nov

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Al-MonitorIs Egypt Going Backward on Religious Freedom?Al-MonitorFreedom of religion is not an exception in this context. The constitution is not considered a constitution unless it guarantees the free exercise of religion for all.

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When A Haircut Ain’t So Simple

16 Nov

Faith McGregor needed a haircut.  We all know that there are some hair cutting establishments that cater to male clientele and others to female clientele.  Some are unisex.  One assumes that those that cater to men do so because that is their expertise – it is what they specialize in – what they do best.  So what happens if a woman wants a “man’s” haircut?  Presumably she goes to a “men’s” barber and she gets a cut like men would “normally get.”  That is what Faith was looking for – a “man’s” haircut – though she is a woman.

So she went to a men’s barber shop on Bay Street in Toronto and asked for service.  She was denied.  She was refused because the barbers, being Muslim, are not permitted, by their faith, to cut hair of a woman who is not a family member.  Their religious duty as mandated by the Koran says that only a woman can cut another woman’s hair.  So they said “no” to Faith.

Rather than being satisfied with that answer Faith took personal exception to the religious beliefs of the barbers.  She filed a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.  That is her right.  The OHRC has accepted the complaint and mediation will be held in February in an attempt to settle the matter. [1]  It is highly improbable, in my view, that a settlement will be had.  If that is unsuccessful then the next step will be a hearing before a tribunal.

“I want the shop to be cited and forced to give haircuts in the fashion they provide [barbershop style] to any woman, or man that asks for one,” McGregor is reported to have said.  McGregor is also asking that a sign be posted in the front window stating both men and woman will be served.

We now have a classic case of where religious freedom to work and live in accordance with one’s conscience is in conflict with another persons’ equality right to service without discrimination based on gender.

This case raises some very interesting questions and is reminiscent of the 2002 case of Brockie v. Ontario (Human Rights Commission) where the OHRC found that Mr. Brockie’s refusal to print the material (letterhead and business cards) for a gay group because it violated his religious beliefs constituted discrimination based on sexual orientation and that any infringement of Brockie’s right to freedom of religion was justified in order to prevent harm to the members of the gay community.

Mr. Brockie’s freedom of religion did not extend to the practice of religious beliefs in the public marketplace.  On appeal the court held Mr. Brockie was to provide the printing services except where the material could be considered in direct conflict with the core elements of his religious beliefs. ([2002] O.J. No. 2375)  Presumably, materials other than letterhead and business cards that were promoting the gay lifestyle he could refuse to print.  So there was some allowance for his religious faith in the public but it was limited.

Faith McGregor’s case will raise the issues of the Brockie case all over again.  Could it be that the forcing of Muslim men to cut women’s hair be considered in direct conflict with the core elements of their religious beliefs?

But there are other questions:

Why should we expect in a multicultural society that religious people are to leave their beliefs at home when they go to work?

What is so terrible about going to another establishment to find service after being rejected by a service provider because of religious sensibilities?

What are the limits to religious expression?

Do we have a right to any public service no matter what?  Do men have a right to go into “Women only” fitness centres?

What if the person providing a service is closed for a religious holiday – should they be forced to serve even on their holy days?

Or, are we saying that if you are open then everyone who comes through the door must be served – no questions asked?

Is there a difference about what motivates the discrimination – for example does it matter that it is based on religious beliefs (a Muslim man can’t cut a woman’s hair because it is against his religion) as opposed to other matters such as gender (women want to exercise together just because they are women)?

In a multicultural society should we not make allowances for religious belief – when the services are such that they are easily obtained at another establishment?  Or do we not have any provision for tolerance of religious differences when the provider is in the public market place?

Why do we as a society even protect religion to begin with?  What is it about religion that is worthy of respect?



Uncle Alberta WANTS YOUR Picture

1 Mar

In a highly unusual decision the Supreme Court of Canada has narrowly decided against religious freedom. This court decision may well have marked the high water point of what had been a very sound approach, up to now, toward religious freedom by the Court since the Charter of Rights came into effect in 1982. In this case it ruled in favour of the government against a religious minority when a very simple alternative could have accommodated this group’s religious beliefs. That alternative is discussed below.


It involved a Hutterite colony in Alberta. The Hutterites, if they want to drive from now on, must have a photograph taken for their drivers’ license even though for over 29 years they were given an exemption. They believe that the requirement to have a picture taken would be breaking the Second of the Ten Commandments – “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image….”


We have come a long ways from those promising words of Chief Justice Brian Dickson, who said in the first religious freedom case under the Charter (R. v. Big M Drug Mart),


The essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain such religious beliefs as a person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious belief by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination. But the concept means more than that.


What may appear good and true to a majoritarian religious group, or to the state acting at their behest, may not, for religious reasons, be imposed upon citizens who take a contrary view. The Charter safeguards religious minorities from the threat of “the tyranny of the majority”.


Such was the promise. For the Hutterian Brethren of Wilson Colony, in Alberta they know what the tyranny of the majority is all about. As they walk to the grocery story – or ride a horse watching the majority drive by and perhaps mock them like they have done other religious minorities using such means of transportation. The Province argued, and the Supreme Court agreed, that to permit the Hutterites an exemption to the photograph requirement would jeopardize the “integrity” of the licensing system as it tries to prevent identity theft.


To put Alberta’s argument into perspective a couple of important facts must be noted. First, for over 29 years the Province had permitted the Hutterites an exemption. Not one piece of evidence was presented to the court which showed any loss of integrity for that policy during that time.


Second, over 700,000 people in the province do not hold a drivers’ license. If a photograph is so important to preventing identity theft then it surely follows that every citizen must be photographed and given an identity card so that their identity is not stolen!


It is interesting to note that the Chief Justice had, some years ago, given a speech in Montreal about the conflict between law and religion. It was the court’s role she maintained to find the balance between the “normative commitments” of law and religion. Law and religion are two competing absolute claims upon individual citizens.1 “There is no part of modern life,” she quoted Yale Professor Kahn, “to which law does not extend.” “Kahn is describing the way in which, from the subjective viewpoint of the individual, the rule of law exerts an authoritative claim upon all aspects of selfhood and experience in a liberal democratic society.”


Likewise, “There are no limits to the claims made by religion upon the self. Religious authority, grounded as it is in basic assumptions about the nature of the cosmos, impinges upon all aspects of the adherent’s world.”


It is up to the courts, the Chief Justice maintains to “oversee those points in public life where there is a clash between religious conscience and society’s values as manifested in the rule of law.” In providing a space for religious expression, she maintains, it must not compromise “core areas of our civil commitments.”2


In forcing the Hutterites to get a photograph taken, the Chief Justice said that Alberta does not have to accommodate their beliefs. All the province had to do was establish “that the measure is rationally connected to a pressing and substantial goal, minimally impairing of the right and proportionate in its effects.” Of course she went on to show that Alberta did just that.


In reviewing the benefits of a universal photograph requirement the Chief Justice noted that not all of the proposed benefits could be substantiated but “If legislation designed to further the public good were required to await proof positive that the benefits would in fact be realized, few laws would be passed and the public interest would suffer.” Such an admission by the court clearly challenges its conclusion that indeed the benefits of the legislation outweighed deleterious effects on the Hutterite colony.


The Chief Justice noted that,


In judging the seriousness of the limit in a particular case, the perspective of the religious or conscientious claimant is important. However, this perspective must be considered in the context of a multicultural, multireligious society where the duty of state authorities to legislate for the general good inevitably produces conflicts with individual beliefs. The bare assertion by a claimant that a particular limit curtails his or her religious practice does not, without more, establish the seriousness of the limit for purposes of the proportionality analysis. Indeed to end the inquiry with such an assertion would cast an impossibly high burden of justification on the state. We must go further and evaluate the degree to which the limit actually impacts on the adherent.


Later she said,


The Charter guarantees freedom of religion, but does not indemnify practitioners against all costs incident to the practice of religion. Many religious practices entail costs which society reasonably expect the adherents to bear. The inability to access conditional benefits or privileges conferred by law may be among such costs. A limit on the right that exacts a cost but nevertheless leaves the adherent with a meaningful choice about the religious practice at issue will be less serious than a limit that effectively deprives the adherent of such choice.


She concludes by saying that the impact on their religious freedom will require them no longer to drive but they “will be obliged to make alternative arrangements for highway transport.” While such cost is not trivial she admits, it does not “seriously affecting the claimants’ right to pursue their religion. They do not negate the choice that lies at the heart of freedom of religion.”


Justice Abella in dissent notes,


The harm to the constitutional rights of the Hutterites, in the absence of an exemption,

is dramatic. Their inability to drive affects them not only individually, but also severely

compromises the autonomous character of their religious community.


There can be no denying that religious practice, especially outside of the majoritarian religions, may be costly. It is the price of “doing religion” as it were. But in a case such as this one it is problematic when a government could have easily have accommodated this 250 group of people by simply noting on their drivers’ license that the document could not be used for identification purposes – along with the other 700,000 Albertans who do not have a license.


It would seem to me that a drivers’ license should not be used as our internal defacto passport for movement within Canada. It should be what it was originally designed for – to show one’s authorization to drive a vehicle. If security is what we want – making sure government can track each person’s movement then issue a card to every citizen – driver or no driver. Oh yeah one problem – they will want a picture for that card too – where will the Hutterites go then?


The reality is since the advent of pictures for drivers’ licenses – over 29 years ago – this small religious minority drove the streets of Alberta without a problem – and now the majority says – it will lose the integrity of the entire licensing system? Just does not seem possible.



July 24, 2009


Trent Hills, Ontario


1 The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, PC, “Freedom of Religion and the Rule of Law: A Canadian Perspective,” in Douglas Farrow, ed., Recognizing Religion in a Secular Society: Essays in Pluralism, Religion, and Public Policy, (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004), 12.

2 McLachlin, p. 22.

Karel Nowak: One Man’s Legacy Lives On

22 Aug

Karel Speaking to a Religious Liberty Group

It is a message we never want to hear. We dread it. A message that a friend or a family member has passed away. Especially is this so when it is the result of a tragedy. Karel Nowak was a close friend of mine who tragically drowned yesterday. He was on his way to attend the Meeting of Experts of the International Religious Liberty Association in Sydney, Australia. Before the meetings were to take place he had planned on taking a few days of well deserved vacation in Cairns in the northern part of Australia.

I have only gotten to know Karel over the last 2.5 years while I worked for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the Public Affairs and Religious Liberty Department. Karel represented the Church in the various capitals of Europe – particularly Bern, Brussels, Strasbourg, and Geneva. He was the editor of the well respected journal Conscience et Liberte and the Secretary General of the International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty.

I remember going over to Geneva as part of my duties and was really thinking that this work of representing the matter of religious freedom was a huge task. “How was I going to do it,” I thought. “There is simply too much. Where do I start?” It was daunting. I called up Karel and asked if we could meet.

In no time he drove down from Bern and met me at the Palais de Nations and took me to dinner across the street from the train station. We talked, and talked about the work of representing the church in Geneva. I was humbled. I soon realized that the Lord had His man in Geneva already – Karel. As I sat and listened to Karel’s story – I could not but admire the Lord’s leading. The work of religious freedom, was never going to be dependent upon one man, it was not about me or anyone else – it is the Lord’s work – and the Lord had prepared Karel and was using him for the work in Geneva for years.

Over my short time of knowing Karel we got to travel together – we were in Beirut, Bucharest, Geneva and Washington, D.C.. We spent many hours talking about our respective families – our children. He loved his wife and children. His girls were very precious to him. He was the proud father of three daughters all accomplished in their fields of study and work. He told me of his heart wrenching experience of one daughter who nearly died in a car accident as she was on her way to school some years before He spent many weeks in prayer as he shepherded the family through that crisis. He praised the Lord for His goodness in delivering his daughter. As he shared that story I was swept away by his tenderness and humanity. In short his honesty.

Karel, was a great churchman. He loved his Church. He was a strong and effective advocate of religious freedom. I knew that I could learn from this man. I asked him what sparked his interest in the work of religious freedom. Here is what he told me,

My first contact with PARL Department was in the early ’70s when Pierre Lanares was the PARL Director for our Division. I was a young worker at that time and one of the few who spoke French. When Lenaress came to our Cechesolvakia Union, he visited often, I was asked to drive him to places and in some instances even to translate for him. I heard him talking about religious freedom and activity of the PARL. I was just 25, 26, I never dreamt at the time that I would be involved, I was a ministerial intern and happy about it and that was about it. He would show pictures how he visited the prime minister of this country, and minister of that country and king of this country. In the car driving him back to the hotel in the evening after the whole Sabbath meetings I asked him a question, “Elder Lanares, listening to you today, I just wondered, if I was tomorrow invited to meet the president of our country, I would not know what to talk with him about – what should I tell him? What’s the secret? What are you talking about when you are visiting these ministers?”

He laughed and he told me, “you know, it is very easy. Try to find always something to thank the person for but be genuine. Don’t make it up.” And he told me “When I am going to see a minister or a prime minister these politicians expect that when you want to talk to them they expect you to ask for something. Because people visit them only when they need something so they receive you with that mindset “what is this person going to ask from me?” When you come you tell them, “I came not because I want to ask from you something but I just came to thank you. Thank you for what you did in your country for this and this.” It helps and it opens the doors.”

As a pastor I used this approach even on the very local level and I learnt that it works. It works in a wonderful way if you just came to a person and say, “Well I came not because I want to ask something I came because I want to tell you we appreciate what you do and what you did for us.” So that was my first exposure.

It was always in my mind afterwards and when the situation opened the door more for me to be more engaged in religious liberty I would grasp the opportunity.

I am thankful that Karel did in fact take the opportunity when he did. I had hoped that I would have an opportunity to learn more from Karel. I saw him as a mentor. I did not know how long the Lord would have me in the religious liberty field working for the Church. It is, and remains, a strong burning passion of mine. Karel was humble – unassuming – more than willing to share what all he knew about religious freedom and the work that he did in Europe for the Church.

Whenever an issue arose in Europe – whether the ban of the religious headgear or Sunday closing discussions – it was Karel who was the point guy. He was the person in the know. If he did not have an immediate answer he would find it right away and be back with an answer. His service will be deeply missed.

Karel with Romanian Minister of Culture and Religion

As he walked the halls of power in Europe he soon discovered that on many issues the politicians were puzzled as to what to do on the issues of religious freedom. He told me, “Even in the circles like UN when I am meeting from time to time with ambassadors or other personnel from the missions some of them say, “Can you help us could you tell us what to do?””

Karel was not one to suppose that he had all of the answers but like Daniel of old, Karel did know Someone who did know. In his daily walk with the Lord, Karel sought His Lord and Saviour for the wisdom of the ages to share with the people of power and influence as he walked the marble.

Shortly before I left the work at the GC office I had an opportunity to sit down with Karel and asked him what he would say to the person who would replace him. What words of wisdom would he give. He had shared with me that he planned to retire when his current term of office had come to an end. I had no idea that this question would prove to be such an important question. To think that in only a few months this dear friend would not be with us was simply unfathomable. But here is what he told me,

… the most important thing is self perception. I need to be persuaded about the thing that I am doing – what I am doing, why am I doing it? For me and my understanding the service I am trying to provide to the church is, in a way, similar to the service provided by ADRA in a humanitarian area. I think that the church needs certain type of services…. which is provided by the PARL department.

Primarily, the church needs to be constantly reminded of the principles and importance of religious freedom.

Then church needs to be known in the society as a community that promotes and protects religious freedom.

Third …. the church needs to get reliable, correct information about the situation in every country, or given country where the church works – following the legal development, [and] the social development.

In my opinion it is very important for the work of the leadership of the church. They need this information. …. Now we can develop any of these points but basically the PARL Department provides services for the church.

Then as for the activities … I would suggest to my successor to concentrate on effective promotion of the PARL Department of religious ideas primarily with the church leadership at all levels and then with the church membership to have them as a support group not to be seen as someone who runs his own little business or more likely his hobby horse and that the church somehow graciously suffers it.

The PARL department has two primary functions, according to Karel, first it is to provide information about the legal and social issues of religious freedom in the given country; and second, it is to be involved in creating a positive image of the Church to the community.

As he spoke to me he was filled with passion – he was in his element as he shared about what he learnt from Dr. Nussbaum, the founder of the International Association for the Defence of Religious Liberty, who told, “…everybody that he’s promoting principle not interests.” While many in the Church were keen on promoting the interests of the Church “we need to go beyond that to have the larger picture to promote principles. If the principles are respected our interests are included. But if we concentrate only on our interests we are not credible and very easily lose the ground for our work.”

I could not agree with Karel and Dr. Nussbaum more. Karel applied this view in his work. While at the UN library in Geneva I looked up the term “religious freedom”. I was pleasantly surprised to see article after article from the journal “Conscience et Liberte” referenced. Karel continued on the work of Dr. Nussbaum in editing that journal – it obviously has a prominent place in the field at the UN. One day while in the office of UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief the official I was meeting spoke very highly of Karel’s work with the International Association for the Defense of Religious Liberty. As I walked down the marble steps I could not but be thankful for having men like Karel holding the banner of religious freedom at the UN.

Karel continued with his counsel to his successor:

First, “promote these ideas and we need to repeat them all the time because the church leaders change and church members forget. We need to repeat that to remind them to get their support.

Secondly I think that our church introduced years, years, back the idea of Religious Liberty Sabbath and Religious Liberty Offering which is not respected in many of our fields. Although it is voted by the General Conference Executive Committee our Divisions, Unions, local fields feel very much to be free to choose from the list of special days and offerings what they regard as important and what doesn’t really fit in their vision or their strategic plan they leave alone. The wise use of the opportunity once a year to have access to the churches have institutionalized occasion to promote religious liberty ideas in our church seems to me very, very important.

Third point, I would very much encourage our PARL leaders, at all levels, to look around them and to try to find key personalities in the governments, all levels of the state governments, in the judiciary, and especially among the law experts, sociologists, or other people that would be very likely consulted by the authorities in case of crisis. That seems to me to be really crucial to identify these people and try to contact them before we need them to develop friendship, to develop personal contact. Try to be helpful for them and then in case of need just try to use their influence and their expertise to help the Church to defend the principle of religious freedom.

Then I would suggest that the PARL leader would need to think about increasing visibility of the PARL or the Church engagement in the area of religious liberty. It can be done in many ways, usually by organizing some sort of events. It could be a very very large array of programs, conferences, round tables, discussions, festivals or whatever. Just create occasions where the ideas of religious freedoms will be upheld and will be promoted.

Then another point would be try to create networks with other NGOs, with other churches, with other agencies that are somehow engaged in human rights and especially religious freedom – to support them, to help them to attend their events and also try to work with them in case we would need them and their support that they would help us as well.

This then is Karel’s advice to the person who is to take his place. Neither he nor I had any idea that his successor would come in only a few months from the time he gave me that interview. I will forever remember our time we spent together with the utmost fondness. A Godly, Christian man, a defender of the principle of religious freedom has defended his last case before the parliaments of Europe – but his legacy continues. We now wait for that glorious day, that Blessed Hope! When our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ comes back for His people. I long for the day when I get to meet Karel again and say, “Thanks for being such a good friend, for being a mentor, for being used of God.”

See you in the morning. It won’t be long now……

Karel at GC Headquarters 2011

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