Canada Has a Blasphemy Law!!!

by | January 9, 2015

Not many people know that Canada has a blasphemy law, but thanks to Centre For Inquiry Canada (CFIC), Canadians are finding out that Section 296 of the Criminal Code says

(1) Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.

(2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel.

(3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.

CFIC’s Update # 3 to its post “CFI Condemns Murders at Charlie Hebdo” says

CFI Canada issued a call to the Canadian government to protect the freedom of speech by disposing of Criminal Code Section 296: Canada’s Anti-Blasphemy law.

CFIC invites you to “follow the coverage and debate” using the links to the Global News, National Post and Wall Street Journal articles and to Friendly Atheist and My Secret Atheist Blog posts.

In another blog post and in an email, CFIC combines its concern for Raif Badawi, who was imprisoned by the Saudi government for insulting Islam and who, today, received the first 50 lashes of his sentence of 1,000 lashes, with an appeal.

In its blog post ,

CFI Canada condemns the Saudi government for its barbaric and horrifying intention to torture Raif Badawi. . . . [and] urges Canadians to express their outrage and condemnation to the Government of Canada

A January 8th email assures me and other members of CFI Canada that

CFIC has been in contact with Ambassador Andrew Bennett regarding Mr. Badawi and also regarding the hypocrisy of protecting religious minorities while retaining an antiquated blasphemy law.

CFIC is also urging Justice Minister MacKay to take a stand against faith-based brutality, violence and oppression by communicating with Prime Minister Stephen Harper to call for the immediate release of Raif Badawi. We are urging Mr. MacKay to lead the important symbolic step of removing Section 296 from Canada’s Criminal Code.

More information about Section 296 of Canada’s Criminal Code is available in CFIC’s post “Canada’s Blasphemous Libel Law.” After you have read the post, consider contacting the Canadian government to take action against faith-based oppression and violence. Send emails or letters to Minister John Baird (Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada), to Minister Peter MacKay (Department of Justice) and to your local MP to voice your concern.

6 thoughts on “Canada Has a Blasphemy Law!!!

  1. Tim Underwood

    I think John and Peter will find ways to sidestep this issue. Conservatives, probably, by-in-large, think that there should be laws to protect sacred artifacts from thought crimes.
    They will at least be conflicted.

  2. Gordon

    This rather raises the question as to why Canada is not ranked as having “Severe Discrimination” in the 2014 Freedom of Thought report given that New Zealand is so ranked on the basis of a similar and equally unenforced law!

    1. Indi

      I can answer that one.

      The difference is between unenforce*D* and unenforce*ABLE*. The blasphemy law in Canada is unenforce*ABLE*; it’s not *just* that it hasn’t been used since the 1930s, it’s that since the Charter became supreme law in 1982 it *can’t* be used. It violates the Charter, and the Charter is supreme law (it’s part 1 of the Canadian constitution) so any attempt to use it is doomed to fail. It’s utterly useless and vestigial (which is why, in theory, there should be no objection to simply striking it from the books completely… it’s just taking up space at this point).

      But New Zealand doesn’t have anything like the Charter. It has a Bill of Rights, but it’s rather like our own Bill of Rights from the 1960s before we made the Charter part of the Constitution… it’s not *really* all that effective – legally speaking, it’s more a suggestion than an absolute law. That’s why we abandoned our own Bill of Rights and made the Charter instead, even though technically speaking the content of the two are almost identical. The Bill of Rights was “just another law”, but the Charter is a *supreme* law (enshrined in the Constitution). With the Bill of Rights there was no requirement that other laws agree with it, but all laws *must* be kosher with the Charter (unless there’s a damn good reason for them to fall under the “reasonable limits” clause) or they’re not really Canadian laws.

      In other words, the blasphemy law in New Zealand is still live. It hasn’t been used, sure… but it’s quite possible that it *could* be used. And it’s quite possible that if it were used, it would stick. All it would take is one God-crazy prosecutor and the right situation, and boom. Canada’s blasphemy law is dead… dead, dead, dead… removing it from the books is actually unnecessary – it’s just a symbolic gesture (which I support, of course) – because it’s already as if it were removed. The New Zealand law may be old, silly, and unused… but it’s a *real* law, and it *could* still be used.

      So you’re comparing apples and oranges. Canada technically has a blasphemy law… *on the books*… but it doesn’t *actually* have a blasphemy law in reality (because that law on the books is toothless and vestigial). New Zealand *actually* has a blasphemy law. The fact that no one’s used it in a while is neither here nor there – it’s a live and valid law, and it *could* be used under the right (or wrong) circumstances.

      (Actually, I would consider the title of this post technically correct in a very limited sense, but misleading. I would argue it’s more correct to say “Canada has some old text in its law books that looks like a blasphemy law… but it isn’t really a law (anymore)”. But there’s no need to be that pedantic – I get the point of saying Canada has a blasphemy law, even though it does cause confusion when you try to compare our case to those countries that *actually do* have a blasphemy law, like New Zealand.)

  3. Gordon

    Being pedantic: it is assumed the Supreme Court would hold that s 296 would violate the Charter which must also involve a finding that it is not saved by s1 as being a “reasonable limit” and that s33 would not be invoked (it being only a convention that it isn’t). One might argue that subs 296(3) provides for the reasonable limit already

    It might be reasonably expected to be held to violate the charter but that has yet to be determined and hence I would suggest still a law (copied from wherever NZ copied its as they are identical except you get 2 years in Canada instead of 1)

    1. Indi

      You are correct, it is assumed. But, realistically speaking, that assumption is quite safe. Pulling off an s1 exemption would be a miracle, because unlike hate speech – which can be reasonably argued to actually threaten the safety of people and groups – blasphemy doesn’t limit or threaten any of the fundamental rights of anyone. All it ultimately does is hurt feelings and wound pride, and good luck arguing that protecting hurt feelings and wounded pride is so important for a free and democratic society that it’s worth suppressing a fundamental freedom. (And no, paragraph 3 won’t save it by being a “reasonable limit” – that’s not the way s1 gets applied. And while s33 is the god-hammer than can overrule anything… it ain’t gonna be used. It just ain’t. Worrying about possibilities that are *that* astronomically improbable is simply being unreasonable.)

      The bottom line is that Humanist Canada had legal experts go over our blasphemy law, and they determined: it’s dead. The Humanist Society of New Zealand had legal experts go over *their* blasphemy law, and they determined: it’s live. Hence, the ratings in the report.


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