CLF urges Parliament to retain Criminal Code protections for religious expression and association

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There is no difficulty in concluding that [s. 176]...serves the needs of public morality by precluding conduct potentially injurious to the public interest.
— Supreme Court of Canada

Christian Legal Fellowship (CLF), Canada’s national association of Christian legal professionals, has urged Parliament to protect religious expression, association, and peaceful assembly by retaining section 176 of the Criminal Code

Bill C-51 (an Act to amend the Criminal Code and the Department of Justice Act and to make consequential amendments to another Act) purports to repeal a number of offences that are “no longer required in the Criminal Code for various reasons”, including those that “have been ruled unconstitutional” or are “obsolete, redundant or that no longer have a place in criminal law.” 

One of the provisions to be repealed is section 176, which prohibits activity that obstructs or interferes with religious officials seeking to perform their religious duties or with “assemblages of persons met for religious worship or for a moral, social or benevolent purpose.”

The societal interests protected by section 176 – versions of which pre-date Confederation – remain pressing and relevant today:

In a genuinely pluralistic society, citizens must be free to meet, worship, and collectively express themselves without fear of being silenced by reprisal or intimidation. Canada’s historical reality regarding the oppression of religious and other minority groups – some of which has been effectively prosecuted under section 176 – must not be forgotten. The Supreme Court of Canada’s recognition that section 176 protects the public interest remains a salient one. The inclusion of section 176 in the Criminal Code demonstrates Canada’s ongoing societal commitment to protect the fundamental freedoms of religious expression and association.
— Derek Ross, CLF Executive Director & General Counsel

CLF's submission was supported by an advisory group of CLF members including lawyers with the Canadian Council of Christian Charities, criminal law practitioners, and pastors. 

The submission urges the Committee to consider (1) the necessity of section 176 in protecting Charter freedoms in ways that other Criminal Code provisions do not; and (2) Canada's international obligations to actively protect peaceful assemblies.

CLF, an NGO with special consultative status with the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council, highlighted that Canada has committed itself - and has called on all other UN Members - to take positive measures to “respect and fully protect the rights of all individuals to assemble peacefully and associate freely.”

CLF's submission further explains that section 176 is not “unconstitutional”, “outdated”, or “duplicative of more general offences”. To the contrary, Canadian courts, including the Supreme Court of Canada, have consistently applied the provisions currently found in section 176 and upheld their constitutionality. As CLF`s brief explains, a number of appellate judges have affirmed that these provisions are necessary for the realization of such fundamental rights as freedom of assembly and freedom of association:

The importance of these rights and freedoms are precisely why a specific Criminal Code provision protecting them – as opposed to a generic provision of more limited application – is necessary. Attacking a religious worship service or peaceful assembly is not just an attack on those directly participating; it is an attack on the very freedom they are exercising and on Canada’s societal commitments as expressed in the Charter. It is therefore a particularly egregious act and deserving of specific redress in the Criminal Code
— CLF brief, page 7

CLF’s submission concludes that section 176 is a constitutionally sound law, and that its repeal is not justified under any of Bill C-51’s stated objectives.

CLF's full submission can be read here.

Bill C-51, which is currently being studied by the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, can be read here.