Freedom of religion

01.19.04

France is maybe the most prominent example in the media these days on total idiocy about the concept of freedom of religion… but there are other, smaller-scale examples closer to home.

Today’s Gazette had two stories. One was about a zoning dispute for a mosque in DDO:

Many prayers have been said at 241 Anselme-Lavigne Blvd. in the 15 years the building has had a religious function, but for the current Muslim occupants, the D.D.O. address is proving to be more of a curse than a blessing.

The Canadian Islamic Centre Al-Jamieh bought the property in December 2001 and has been fighting the borough for the right to stay ever since.

The dispute became public in fall 2002 when the borough changed the site’s zoning from residential to institutional, with the aim of moving out the mosque and putting in a day care.

Meanwhile, a group of Orthodox Jews is battling their condo association for the right to build succahs on their balconies:

Several religious organizations will side with five families as they argue that a condo rule barring them from putting huts on their balconies for about a week each year to celebrate a fall religious festival contravenes the Charter of Rights.

The case is considered one of the most significant in the court’s winter session because the outcome could determine whether private contracts can override the charter and human-rights legislation.

These two cases are quite different, of course. The first is yet another example of cities using every iota of red tape and zoning regulation at their disposal to prevent religious centres or houses of worship. I haven’t heard too many large-scale protests against churches, but a synagogue in Outremont is in an ongoing battle to expand, and the mosque in question in DDO used to be a conservative synagogue, which also went through its share of problems with the city. It seems people can only tolerate freedom of religion as long as religions other than their own are being practiced privately in a home, not publicly.

In the second case, I suppose a condo association should be allowed to have by-laws for certain things. But personal politics and petty squabbles usually play more of a role in those condo meeting votes than common sense. On the one hand, a communal succah for the building seems reasonable. But on the other hand, I’m willing to bet that the opposition to the balcony succahs has more to do with childish power jockeying than with any real concerns. Again back to Outremont, the worst case of this that I can recollect recently was a group of citizens lobbying to prevent the large Orthodox Jewish community in the area from putting up an eruv – a small, basically invisible wire that would encircle the area, allowing the religious inside it to “carry” things like baby strollers on the Sabbath. It wouldn’t have harmed anyone. In fact, there’s an eruv in Dollard but I only know about it by having been told. Nobody would notice. And yet, petty squabbles.

The concept of freedom of religion is an interesting one. It guarantees people the right to practice their religious beliefs without harassment. And it also guarantees freedom from religion to those who don’t wish to participate. That means no school prayers in public schools, no forced public worship of any kind, and basically that the government butts out. But it also means that if people want to wear symbols of faith or observe rituals, they should be free to do so, as long as they don’t compel anyone else to. If a Jewish child wants to bring Passover lunches to school for eight days every year, nobody should force him to eat bread. If a Muslim girl wants to wear a hijab to school, nobody should force her not to… assuming that nobody forced her to wear it in the first place, of course.

But how far does the public responsibility extend to ensure that people can practice their religion? Is a city obliged to rezone land to allow houses of worship to be built? Is a condo association obliged to allow succahs? What if I claimed that my own religion required me to play loud music at 2am every night and dance around in tap shoes. Would a landlord be denied the right to evict me for disturbing the neighbours?

The tricky thing about religion is that there’s no clear-cut line between legitimate, recognized religions and fringe ones. Who’s to say that a small group with 20 followers is any less entitled to the protection of the Charter of Rights than a religion with millions of adherents? What about different ideas on how a religion ought to be observed? If a Reform rabbi testified that a succah wasn’t really needed, but an Orthodox rabbi disagreed, who does the judge have to listen to? And how far is the public required to go to be accommodating? Rezoning land to build a mosque is one thing, but is a public place required to actually build and provide the prayer facilities, as student groups in some universities are claiming?

Obviously, there are no clear answers. But in these cases, we should ask ourselves about the intent of the people seking to block something. Are they doing it out of xenophobia or out of a legitimate concern? When a Sikh boy was denied the right to bring a kirpan to school, perhaps the parents who lobbied so hard against him were denying this boy’s freedom of religion and perhaps they were overreacting, but the bottom line was that their concern stemmed from the legitimate desire to protect their children against a perceived threat of a large knife being present in a classroom in the hands of a fellow student. But I suspect that the motives of the few DDO residents complaining about the mosque are not as honest. At the end of the day, I think it’s about making an honest effort to accommodate one another, to a reasonable degree. Unfortunately, the people involved in such squabbles are rarely reasonable or accommodating… and then you end up with news items like these.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ikram 01.19.04 at 6:30 PM

I do enough criticizing, so let me compliment you on this post. The issue of Public Display’s of relgion are tough, and dispotes will likely become more common as Canada becomes less Christian (and Quebec becomes less Catholic).

IANALawyer, but I beleive this issue has been addressed by the courts a lot in the US (volokh.com cover it well). I’m not sure if it has received the same level of scrutiny in Canada, and we lack any high-powered lawyer bloggers to tell us.

BTW, did they ever manage to put up that eruv in Outremont?

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2 segacs 01.19.04 at 7:01 PM

Yes, the case went to Quebec Superior court and the Orthodox Jews won the right to put up the eruv. See here for a summary of the decision (Rosenberg v. Outremont).

Just to highlight the idiocy of the court case, here’s a couple of paragraphs:

The City was supported by the intervenor Mouvement Laique Quebecois who argued that the erection of eruv wires “involuntarily place non-members of the Orthodox Jewish faith within what amounts to a religious enclave with which they do not wish to be associated.” They complained that the existence of eruvim violated their freedom from religion by preventing them from going anywhere “without having to confront the fact that they live within an eruv.” Finally, the intervenor asserted both that the City has “an obligation to remain neutral in religious matters” which prevents it from “favouring one religion over another”, and that if it permitted eruvim the City would be favouring one religion over others.

As a preliminary evidential matter, Justice Hilton noted that there was “not the slightest evidence” that the interim injunction preventing the City from dismantling the eruv wires was the source of any real inconvenience to non-Orthodox Outremont residents. One resident complained that the wires would prevent her from flying a kite in front of her apartment building. On cross examination, she declined to answer the question of whether she has ever tried to fly a kite in front of her residence, or whether she otherwise ever flies kites.

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3 Michael 01.19.04 at 9:46 PM

Sad to say, but very often it is non-orthodox Jews protesting against zoning changes which would allow Orthodox synagogues and schools to grow in size. The fear is that their “secular” way of life will be overrun by an influx of orthodox (or g_d forbid (sarcasm intended) chassidic Jews in traditional garb.

What they don’t often realize is that property values skyrocket as orthodox Jews move into a neighborhood (supply and demand hard at work!).

The latest case I’ve read about is in Newton, MA, close to where I live.

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4 Eric 01.21.04 at 7:28 AM

Hmmm… I had to look the eruv up to get a better idea of what you were talking about… but imagine if the eruv did have legal force in designating an area as private… every citizen would have the privacy rights which they usually need to cower under a roof for, we could drink in the streets (a private place, then), and nudists would rejoice (at least when it was warm out)… ah, it would be fun for a few days and then the secular eruv would cease to matter to everyone but orthodox Jews for the 99% of the time that paparazzi and nudists weren’t wandering about…

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