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Why Is Blasphemy Still Illegal in Canada?

The Canadian government may defend the right to freedom of speech abroad, but it should also focus on repealing its own anti-blasphemy law.

A march to express solidarity with 'Charlie Hebdo.' Photo via Flickr user Ben Ledbetter, Architect

This post first appeared on VICE Canada.

While the debate over freedom of speech swirls in the wake of the attacks on French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, it turns out Canada has its own blasphemy law on the books—and a group of secular advocates are pushing to have it abolished.

Last Sunday, world leaders of all stripes congregated in the streets of Paris in a show of solidarity against the terrorists whose attack left 17 dead. But while the march brought together an unlikely combination of world leaders—Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu included—Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was missing from the array. It's perhaps a fitting metaphor for a country that, despite speaking out against restrictions on freedom of expression worldwide, continues to uphold its very own blasphemy law.

S ection 296 of the Criminal Code of Canada states: "Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offense and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years." True, no one has been prosecuted under the law in more than 70 years; charges against the Canadian distributor of the Monty Python film Life of Brian in 1980, for example, were later dropped. But secular advocacy groups say it's plainly hypocritical for Canada to keep an anti-blasphemy law on the books when it accuses other countries of using similar laws to justify human rights abuses. The United Kingdom abolished its blasphemy law in 2008; the United States has never had one at the federal level. Meanwhile, Canada's law has expanded in application beyond Christianity to religion in general.

Last month, the heads of Humanist Canada and the Centre for Inquiry (CFI), a national organization that promotes "skeptical, secular, rational, and humanistic inquiry," met with Ambassador Andrew Bennett of Canada's Office of Religious Freedom to note the inconsistency of the law with his office's policy of supporting religious freedom abroad. But Bennett's mandate doesn't include domestic issues. So the two groups, with the support of lawyers, are now taking their case to the Department of Justice.

"There are certain parts of the world where apostasy will get your head removed. We don't have that issue here but why would we even have this on our books?" said Eric Thomas, president of Humanist Canada.

Case in point: Saudi blogger Raif Badawi, sentenced to 1,000 lashings over his online political debate forum, Free Saudi Liberals. Beginning last Friday, the lashings are to take place over the course of 20 weeks. The charges? Insult to Islam and violating Saudi Arabia's information technology laws.

On Thursday, the CFI called on the federal government to seek Badawi's immediate release and urged the repeal of Canada's own blasphemy laws.

"It is time the Canadian government actively opposed blasphemy laws and the brutality and violence they precipitate," said Eric Adriaans, national executive director of the CFI, in a statement. Keeping Canada's law, he says, undercuts any credibility Canada has in denouncing blasphemy laws abroad.

Following the calls, Bennett released a statement denouncing the flogging—but made no mention of Canada's blasphemy law. This week, Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird appealed on Badawi's behalf to the Saudi ambassador in Ottawa. Canada's ambassador in Riyadh is also reported to be seeking a meeting with the Saudi Arabian government.

This isn't the first time Canada has spoken out against punishments for blasphemy. When a Christian couple was beaten to death by a Pakistani mob in November, Bennett said, "This is only the latest in a long series of religiously motivated, violent attacks on individuals who are accused, often falsely, under Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws. It underscores the need to support Pakistani civil society to strengthen pluralism, human rights, and the rule of law, and for the Pakistani government to reform the blasphemy laws to prevent their abuse, as they are used disproportionately and often opportunistically to target religious minorities."

But that's not enough for Iman Willoughby. A self-described ex-Muslim living in Halifax, Willoughby supports the repeal of Canada's anti-blasphemy law. "Never in a million years," she says, did she expect to find such a law here. "I had to go do my own research out of disbelief."

Some argue that the law is dead, a harmless historical relic. But that's little comfort to Willoughby, who emigrated from Saudi Arabia. "Will a judge say, 'Nah, I won't use this law. It's too old'? Is that enough protection for those like myself who speak openly against gods and religion?"

Lawyer Derek James From of the Canadian Constitution Foundation argues that while it's unlikely anyone would be charged with blasphemy in Canada, the very existence of the law is a violation of our freedom of expression. He says the law was considered dead in the UK, too, until it resurfaced in 1977. It's therefore not dead, but dormant, he says.

Willoughby agrees. "If it is truly a dead and unused law, then let us bury it."

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