In wake of Charlie Hebdo attacks, secularist groups to seek end of Canada’s blasphemy law


OTTAWA – The heads of two Canadian organizations promoting secularism will ask the Department of Justice to abolish a section of the criminal code that makes blasphemy illegal, following Wednesday’s attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

Section 296 of the Criminal Code makes “blasphemous libel” punishable by up to two years in jail in Canada.

No one been prosecuted under the law since 1935. As late as 1980, the law was used to charge the Canadian distributor of Monty Python’s film Life of Brian; the charges were later dropped.

Only last month, the heads of Humanist Canada and the Centre for Inquiry, a national organization that promotes “skeptical, secular rational and humanistic inquiry,” met with Ambassador Andrew Bennett, head of the federal government’s Office of Religious Freedom, to note the law’s inconsistency with Canada’s policy of supporting religious freedom abroad.

On Mr. Bennett’s advice, said Eric Adriaans, national executive director of the Centre for Inquiry, the two organizations will lobby the Department of Justice to remove the law. Mr. Bennett’s office did not respond to calls for comment.

“These murders cause us so much grief but also further convince us that no remnants of these ancient attitudes can be allowed to continue,” Mr. Adriaans said.

The United Kingdom abolished its blasphemy law in 2008; the United States has never had one at the federal level. The French region of Alsace-Moselle does have one, dating back to its history as part of Germany, but it’s not easy to use. Last February, a group of French Muslims actually tried to sue Charlie Hebdo itself for blasphemy under the Alsace law, after it published a cover they’d found offensive. The suit failed because Alsace law only protects Catholicism and not Islam.

Meanwhile, Canada’s law has expanded in application beyond Christianity, to religion in general. The Canadian law was first used in 1892 and was originally intended to protect Christianity from blasphemy. Case law since then has broadened its application.

Derek From, a lawyer for the Calgary-based Canadian Constitution Foundation warns that while the law may be dormant, it is not dead. Britain’s blasphemy law, for example, was considered “dead” until it resurfaced in 1977 when a pornographic magazine was charged with the offence for publishing gay poetry about Jesus.

“It is an open question whether the Charter’s guarantee of freedom of expression will offer any protection,” Mr. From wrote in a 2013 letter to Calgary-area MP and Minister of State for Finance Kevin Sorenson. “This is a constitutional question that has never been tested.”

“The conservative right gets bents out of shape about hate speech provisions because they see it as an unconstitutional restriction of their freedom of expression. But that’s exactly what people who are [irreligious] would say about the blasphemy prohibitions — that they cannot say what they want without freedom of prosecution,” Mr. From said.

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

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