Separation of Church & State in Canada

It’s true that Canada does not have an explicit statement about separation of church and state in its constitution like the United States does and it’s true that some of our provinces do annoying church-y things like fund Catholic school boards. However, we don’t really care about the religious life of our Prime Ministers and when Stephen Harper has occasionally declared, “God bless Canada”, at least 1 in 4 of us think it sounds weird and foreign. We are decidedly a liberal democracy that recognizes the separation of church and state and accepts that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion.

This is what makes the Catholic Church’s public statements concerning Justin Trudeau’s pro-choice stance seem rather meddlesome; the religious institution attempts to exert influence where it has no right to: in the affairs of the state.

As background: recently, Justin Trudeau remarked that new MPs to the Liberal party must vote along party lines on any bill that restricts a woman’s right to choose. This caused a bit of a flap. Some took this to mean that if a party member was anti-abortion, they would be fired or that pro-choice means pro-abortion, but Trudeau went on to state the obvious, which is that MPs are free to believe whatever they choose, as long as they vote with the party (something already inimical to Canada’s parliamentary system). See CBC article here.

I’m not really interested in why Trudeau brought up abortion or why he stated the obvious about how MPs are expected to vote; what interests me, as you can probably guess from this post’s introduction, is the Catholic Church’s public reaction to his statement.

Bishop Christian Riesbeck called for Trudeau to retract his “scandalous” words and the Ottawa archdiocese urged Trudeau to meet with Archbishop Terrence Prendergast to discuss his non Catholic abortion views. Trudeau, declined the meeting, and rightly stated:

I have a lot of respect for his eminence and for any leaders within the church, but I do want to highlight that he has a very different role than I do. My role is to stand up and defend all Canadians and my role in terms of that is separate from any personal religious views.

Maybe the Catholic leaders are right – Trudeau is a bad Catholic, but that’s just too bad because as a Canadian politician his religion is not supposed to interfere with the secular, liberal democratic and enlightened society he governs. The Catholic Church can be as angry as it wants to be, but publicly pressuring Trudeau to compromise his secular values – that’s what’s really scandalous! It seems the Catholic Church recognizes freedom of religion but only when that freedom doesn’t contradict the Catholic religion.

18 thoughts on “Separation of Church & State in Canada

  1. Why isn’t this windbag bellowing at Harper and his sheeple? They’ve rammed through every destructive piece of anti-Canada legislation they could dream up but have done next to nothing to appease their delusion base over the last 8 years. I hope he chokes on a wafer.

  2. Justin has to tell the invasive hierarchy to go talk to the Conservatives. That’s where all the religionist gather.
    Then he should form an alliance with the social democrats and let the majority rule for once.

  3. When Harper even hints at the abortion issue liberals loose their minds… how dare HE speak… but Trudeau uses it in a pre-election stunt and its all goood.

    • Harper uses abortion as a wedge issue to motivate the religious nutbars that he counts on just like the born again George Dubya did. Shameless and cynical.

      Trudeau’s comments were a shout out to our Charter.
      Honest and transparent.

  4. I think we are all forgetting the “Conservative Revolution” that took place through the 80s, apexing in the 90s, going well into the 10s, and only now finally dwindling.

  5. If Trudeau is pro-choice and Catholic, he is a liar on at least one point. Grow a pair and repudiate the church. He won’t. He is just another politician.

  6. It’s notable that all commenters here focused entirely on the politician and not the bishop. More than merely meddlesome, the temerity of the Catholic Church to try hauling any elected politician onto their theocratic carpet to receive a good finger wagging is offensive. Bishop Risebeck claims a right to intercede in the affairs of State that should not exist in any secular society.

    That said, the Catholic Church in Canada represents a constituency that no savvy politician should ignore. But it’s a false constituency. If priests across the country tried to get their congregations to do anything beyond charitable work, would anything happen? Probably not.

  7. There is a lot of confusion about the separation of church and state.

    A country that has an established state church is one that recognises a church (or religion). A country that does not have an established church is one where there is a separation of church and state. It need not be atheist or non-religious. That is a false conclusion.

    Separation of church and state does not mean accepting that freedom of religion includes freedom from religion. The USA is a good example of that.

    • Elizabeth ll. Head of state of Canada and defender of the faith (anglican). Believing in kings and queens is like believing in gods. Let’s put Frederick Banting or Neil Young on our money instead of some do-nothing, self-important child of privilege. Try waving goodbye with your regal wrist so the rest of humanity can move forward without supporting your ass.

    • It absolutely means that. SCC has ruled exactly that we have a constitutionally protected right of freedom FROM religion! See Regina v. Big M Drug Mart as a start.

  8. The implication that the church should not even be able to offer its opinion is incorrect. A secular society allows for all voices and opinions to be heard and then chooses the appropriate course, free of any ideological biases that the people with those opinions may have had. It does not preclude people with biases or who are part of religious groups from being able to offer their opinion on any matter.

  9. Religious groups that meddle in politics and argue against common sense values like birth control in a world so overpopulated it is falling apart, or equality between genders, like the Catholic Church, Islamic mosques, etc, need to be investigated by the CRA and have their exemption revoked. Elected officials or those campaigning have no business visiting places of worship and inviting the press along. Trudeau visits many mosques, etc, to pray and ensures lots of media get photos. Even after the election. Worship whatever, however you want but it is NOT apropriate to publicize it while in office. Where is the support or affirmation for the rights and belief of Athiests or Agnostics? Nowhere, and the demands for special treatment by religious groups continues to destroy the rights of women, children, LGBTQ and the humane treatment of animals. Who is going to stand for us and stop this?

  10. The concept of the separation of church and state goes back to a misreading, or deliberate distortion, of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. Read carefully, it is designed to protect churches from state interference, that there will be no state religion, that no religion will be favoured over another. It’s a concept we Canadians will deal with in our own way, and without foreign influence.

    • It actually goes back to John Locke and the Enlightenment but I think the French Revolution did a really good job of separating the Church from the State.

      However, you seem to have just read the title of this article and disregarded the content since it has nothing to do with the US and everything to do with the concept regardless of who laid claim to it first.

      • I’d actually disagree with that first line. I’d say that while most Enlightenment thinkers got it more or less right, the French revolutionaries got it horrifically wrong. They did a better job of separating Church officials’ heads from their bodies than they ever did separating church and state. Their bloodlust did tone down a bit eventually, but never really went away completely.

        I’d actually half agree with Raymond Peringer; the US concept of separation of church and state is *technically* not the same as secularism (and neither is the French concept of laïcité). The original idea was that the state should not interfere with religion… not that religion shouldn’t interfere with the state. (Laïcité was closer to secularism – it said both that the state shouldn’t interfere with religion *and* that religion shouldn’t interfere with the state – but it also added a lot of garbage baggage about nationalism, the idea that different peoples can’t coexist together (anti-multiculturalism), and some very authoritarian and fascist ideals.)

        But where I disagree is that I wouldn’t call the evolution of the the original idea of separation of church and state into the modern idea of secularism a “misreading” or “distortion”. I’d say it is the natural, obvious, and inescapable conclusion if you take the idea of separation of church and state to its logical conclusion (which, naturally, the original framers of the US Constitution didn’t, but who cares? – I’m not on board with the whole “the US Constitution should be interpreted using *only* the mindset of the 18th century people who wrote it” thing).

  11. The French Revolution was partly about kicking the Church out of France and that started before laïcité. The Church pretty much had its fingers in everything in the Ancien Régime and the French explicitly made sure they were no longer by creating Article 10 in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and of course in the establishment of civic cults. Sure, the later methods of the French Revolution were brutal and horrible, but that doesn’t mean that Enlightenment is wrong or that there was no separation of Church from State in the documents aforementioned – the whole revolution was brutal (some of my ancestors fled France during The Terror).

  12. What is really scandalous is where governments and school boards fund Catholic and other Christian Schools, allow Muslim student Prayer meetings in schools, teach creationism in Schools, etc. Any religious content must be kept completely out of schools funded by governments. This can lead to favoritism of one religion over another and unequal exposure of children to religions different from their own, should they have one. While it might be ok to teach students ABOUT different religions, exposing the general student population to preaching, prayer sessions. etc. is wrong. When churches begin paying taxes then perhaps they might qualify for some help in funding their schools.

    • > What is really scandalous is where governments and school boards fund Catholic and other Christian Schools…

      We are working on that problem.

      > … allow Muslim student Prayer meetings in schools…

      Why is that scandalous?

      > … teach creationism in Schools, etc.

      That is not happening.

      > Any religious content must be kept completely out of schools funded by governments.

      This idiotic idea has already been debunked: https://www.canadianatheist.com/2017/04/how-to-talk-about-student-prayers-without-sounding-like-a-dumbass/

      > This can lead to favoritism of one religion over another and unequal exposure of children to religions different from their own, should they have one.

      What? “Unequal exposure”? What does that even mean?

      > While it might be ok to teach students ABOUT different religions, exposing the general student population to preaching, prayer sessions. etc. is wrong.

      Again with the “exposing”. What kind of “exposing” are you talking about? If you mean actually forcing preaching, prayer, etc. on students, then yes, that is wrong… but it’s also not happening. If you mean allowing students to know that other religions exist and that some of their fellow students are members of that religion, and practice some of that religion’s beliefs… then what is wrong with that?

      > When churches begin paying taxes then perhaps they might qualify for some help in funding their schools.

      We *DO NOT* want religious schools.

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