Justice Committee retains Criminal Code protections for religious expression and association

Christian Legal Fellowship welcomes result; previously emphasized importance of provisions in protecting freedom of religion, association, and peaceful assembly

OTTAWA, ON - Today, the House of Commons' Standing Committee of Justice and Human Rights reversed the course of government efforts to repeal section 176 of the Criminal Code. The Committee's members today voted to retain the provision, with some amendments to "modernize" its language.

Section 176 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.”

Christian Legal Fellowship filed a detailed legal submission with the Committee last month, urging it to retain section 176 given its importance for protecting religious association and expression. Executive Director and General Counsel Derek Ross welcomed the Committee's decision:

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 retention 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

In addition to CLF, a number of other organizations and CLF members made submissions to Standing Committee. Prior to today's vote, several Committee members commented that they were persuaded by the submissions they received.

Liberal MP Colin Fraser reiterated the Government's view that much of section 176 is covered by other provisions of the Criminal Code (an assertion contested in CLF's submission), but acknowledged:

[I]n view of all of the other arguments that we heard at Committee and given that there is a seeming rising volatility and level of intolerance that should be completely rejected, I’m persuaded that section 176 should remain in the Code, that it does serve some purpose.
— MP Colin Fraser

One of CLF's submissions to the Committee was that even if there were overlap between section 176 and other offences, this is true of many provisions in the Criminal Code  and permitted by law since section 176 serves a distinct, important purpose. As the Supreme Court of Canada held, it protects people who have gathered to pursue socially beneficial activities and “safeguard[s] the rights of groups of people to meet freely and to prevent the breaches of the peace which could result if these types of meetings were disrupted.” It therefore “serves the needs of public morality by precluding conduct potentially injurious to the public interest.” 

CLF also highlighted that numerous appellate judges have affirmed that, without s. 176, Charter rights to peaceful assembly and association "could be meaningless." 

NDP MP Alistair MacGregor was one of the Committee members whose mind was changed by the submissions received:

At first I was prepared to accept the Government’s argument that the offences in this part of the Criminal Code can most certainly be covered in other sections, but I think I’ve been absolutely convinced that it needs to be kept in the Criminal Code simply because it has very significant symbolic value for the people involved....
— MP Alistair MacGregor

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. A number of other CLF members and Christian organizations, including the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Association for Reformed Political Action, also made submissions. Their collective efforts clearly had an impact:

In the summer when I first read through Bill C-51, my eyes just passed right over section 176 being repealed and it didn’t really cause much of an issue until I started receiving a trickle of correspondence which has now evolved into an absolute avalanche...I’ve got a pile of letters [written] to me by children who obviously feel this is very important to them...we as a Committee have listened to the evidence and I believe we’ve reached a consensus on this.
— MP Alistair MacGregor

Bill C-51 will now return to the House of Commons for third reading. It is expected that the amendments approved by the Standing Committee will be approved by Parliament. Its progress can be tracked here.

For further reading, see Fundamental freedoms should never be seen as 'obsolete' by Derek Ross.