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Legal framework on freedom of religion and actual application

The constitution and laws of Canada guarantee freedom of conscience and religion, as well as thought, belief, opinion and expression,[1] subject to “reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society”.[2] Canadians have the right to “equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination” based on religion.[3]

Federal and provincial laws prohibit discrimination on the grounds of religion, permit individuals to sue for violations of religious freedom, and provide remedies for complaints.[4]

Religious groups are not required to register with the government. However, to receive tax-exempt status religious groups must register as non-profit organisations with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Charitable status grants the clergy access to a number of federal benefits, such as tax deductions for resident clergy and faster immigration procedures.[5]

The constitution guarantees the right of Protestant and Catholic minorities to publicly funded denominational schools. Constitutional amendments repealed this guarantee in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador and replaced them with a secular public education system. Consttutionally protected public funding for Catholic schools remains in place in Ontario, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. Federal law protects publicly funded Catholic and Protestant minority education in the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut.[6] Six of the 10 provinces provide at least partial funding to some religious schools.[7] Home-schooling is legal across Canada and financial support is provided to parents in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia.[8]

In November 2016, an Ontario court rejected a father’s complaint that his religious freedom was violated when the school board failed to provide advance notice of the school’s sexual education curriculum. He argued that without notice, he lacked the information to determine whether the content conflicted with his Christian views. The judge dismissed the complaint, saying inclusion and equality come before “individual religious accommodations in public education”.[9]

In late November 2017 the Supreme Court heard the case of Trinity Western University’s (TWU) challenge of the refusal of law societies to accredit graduates from its law programme because of its Community Covenant which states that sexual intimacy must be confined to the traditional definition of marriage. The licensing bodies for attorneys of British Columbia, Ontario, and Nova Scotia claimed that the covenant was discriminatory to the LGBT+ community. The Supreme Court heard two appeals together: one from the Law Society of British Columbia and one from TWU.[10] Lawyers for TWU argued that a ruling against the university “could ultimately impact all faith-based schools, charities, and organizations.”[11] A decision was expected in the late spring or summer of 2018.

In March 2018, a court rejected a challenge to the provisions proscribing polygamy in the Criminal Code[12] on religious freedom grounds by two members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who had been found guilty of polygamy in British Columbia in July 2017.[13]

Quebec passed a law in October 2017 banning face coverings for those giving or receiving public services “so as to ensure quality communication between persons and allow their identity to be verified, and for security purposes”.[14] The law also set forth circumstances under which “accommodations on religious grounds” may be granted, including that “the request is serious”, “is consistent . . . with religious neutrality”, and “reasonable in that it does not impose undue hardship”.[15]

Several groups challenged the law after it passed and in December 2017, a Quebec judge stayed the face-covering ban until the province established clear guidelines for religious accommodation.[16]

In June 2016, a coalition of groups representing more than 4,700 Christian doctors filed a request for judicial review of Ontario’s requirement that they refer patients to physicians willing to provide assisted death, arguing the referrals make them complicit in the act and violated constitutional guarantees of freedom of conscience and religion. The challenge followed enactment of a federal law legalising assisted death but with a conscientious objection provision. Ontario was the only province to require a referral to another physician rather than to a registry.[17]

On 31st January 2018 the court agreed the Ontario requirement infringed “the rights of religious freedom” of the physicians, but said it was justified because of the importance of providing access to the service. The president of one of physicians’ organisations said: “This decision… raises alarm bells to all health care workers and Ontario residents that their freedom of religion and conscience could also be jeopardised.”[18]

A coalition of Muslim, Jewish and Christian leaders met with government officials in March 2018 to object to the Canada Summer Jobs funding application procedure which requires “both the job and the organisation’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms… [which includes] reproductive rights [i.e. abortion]”.[19] They wrote in a letter of January 2018: “The promise of a free and democratic society is that there be no religious or ideological test or conditions to receiving government benefit or protection”.[20] A constitutional challenge in the Federal Court was scheduled for June 2018.[21]


Official hate crime figures recorded by police in 2016 (the most recent available at time of writing) included 221 crimes determined to be motivated by anti-Semitism. Civil society organisations reported to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) 171 anti-Semitic incidents, with 160 attacks against property, one threat, and 10 violent attacks against people.[22]

The B’nai B’rith Canada League for Human Rights received 1,728 reports of anti-Semitic incidents in 2016, marking a 26 percent increase from the previous year and the highest number of incidents since B’nai B’rith began its survey.[23]

Incidents just in Ontario in 2016 included: a man being arrested for threatening the Jewish community in June; swastikas painted on a billboard in July; and in November a swastika daubed on a rabbi’s front door.[24]

In November 2016, a Jewish school, a synagogue, and a rabbi’s home in Ottawa were vandalised with anti-Semitic graffiti within the space of a week. A mosque and church were also targeted.[25]

Several pieces of anti-Semitic graffiti, including the phrase ‘”Hitler was right”, were daubed on a highway overpass in Toronto. These were reported in the summer and early autumn of 2017.[26]

Synagogues in Toronto, Edmonton, Montreal, Hamilton, and Calgary all received hate mail in December 2017. Police hate crimes units in these cities coordinated efforts to investigate.[27]

In March 2018 a Montreal petrol station owner apologised to a Jewish customer after an employee insulted the man with anti-Semitic language. The employee was fired.[28]

Official hate crime figures recorded by police in 2016 included 139 anti-Muslim crimes: the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) submitted data to the OSCE about 43 anti-Muslim incidents.[29]

The NCCM reports that a number of incidents occurred during 2016: a pig’s head was left at a mosque in Quebec City in June; a Muslim woman wearing a headscarf was insulted, spat at and had her headscarf pulled at while shopping in Ontario in June; an air rifle was used to fire through an Ontario mosque window while children were studying inside in July; a Vancouver mosque was targeted in attempted arson in September; in October, the glass door to an Islamic centre in South Calgary was broken and a burnt Qur’an and a hate letter were left at the scene; and in November, the head of a Muslim organisation, based in Quebec, received death threats.[30]

On 29th January 2017, Alexandre Bissonnette, a 27-year-old university student,[31] opened fire inside the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre during evening prayers. Six men were killed and five were critically wounded. Bissonnette entered a guilty plea to six counts of first-degree murder and six of attempted murder on 28th March 2018.[32]

A man was arrested in March 2017 after a letter containing a bomb threat targeting Muslim students at Concordia University was sent to Montreal media outlets.[33]

The same Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, where six people were shot in January 2017, received a package containing a defaced Qur’an and a note saying the Muslim community should use a hog farm for a cemetery in July 2017.[34] In August, the car of the centre’s president was set on fire and the centre’s doors were smeared with excrement.[35]

In December 2017 a Colombian man, mistaken for being Muslim, was beaten with a baseball bat and insulted by a man yelling “ISIS” (e.g. Islamic State or Daesh) and “terrorist”.[36]

The sign outside an Islamic centre, which was under construction, was defaced with derogatory ISIS graffiti in February 2018.[37]

Official hate crime figures recorded by police in 2016 (the most recent available at time of writing) included 27 crimes motivated by bias against Christians.[38]

A man was charged with arson and mischief after throwing a “small firebomb” through the window of a church in Toronto on Easter morning 2017.[39]

Two churches in Ontario were vandalised with graffiti in August 2017, one with a racist message and the second with the words “Islamic State”.[40]

In November 2017, a church in British Columbia was defaced with the words “Kill All Christians”, less than a week after 26 people were killed in a Baptist church in Texas. It was the second incident of vandalism in a week.[41] A British Columbia church was vandalised with fake blood in November 2017 after being the target of previous vandalism in August.[42]

A small New Brunswick church was attacked by vandals who broke windows, damaged furniture, stepped on communion bread, and smashed the piano in late November 2017.[43]

On Easter 2018 vandalism with vulgar anti-Christian messages was discovered painted on two Catholic churches in Halifax.[44]

Prospects for freedom of religion

New or increased governmental restrictions on religious freedom during the period under review may have a negative impact on both majority and minority religions over the next two years. There appears to be an increased risk of societal intolerance against minority religions, some of which may be a backlash to global terrorism or geopolitical conflicts attributed to religious groups, as well as anti-immigration sentiments in Canada.


Endnotes / Sources

[1] Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Section 2, Part I of the Constitution Act, 1982,,, (accessed 15th March 2018).

[2] Ibid, Section 1.

[3] Ibid, Section 15.

[4] Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, “Canada”, International Religious Freedom Report for 2016, US State Department,, (accessed 21st March 2018).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] D. Van Pelt, “Homeschooling in Canada continues to grow”, Fraser Forum: The Fraser Institute Blog, 15th August 2017,, (accessed 30th March 2018).

[9] M. Yawar, “Court rejects Hamilton dad’s fight to get warnings from school board over ‘false teachings’”, CBC News, 28th November 2016,, (accessed 30th March 2018).

[10] C. Hennig, “Trinity Western University heads to Supreme Court of Canada over fate of proposed law school”, CBC News, 30th November 2017,, (accessed 30th March 2018).

[11] D. Gyapong, “Religious freedom ‘on an abyss of revolutionary change’, lawyers warn”, The Catholic Register, 5th December 2017,, (accessed 30th March 2018).

[12] Criminal Code 1985 (R.S.C., 1985, c. C-46), Section 293,, (accessed 30th March 2018).

[13] G. Karstens-Smith, “B.C. judge rejects constitutional challenge of polygamy law”, The Star, 9th March 2018,, (accessed 22nd March 2018).

[14] An Act to foster adherence to State religious neutrality and, in particular, to provide a framework for requests for accommodations on religious grounds in certain bodies 2017, Section 1,, (accessed 22nd March 2018).

[15] Ibid, Section 11.

[16] “Judge strikes down key provision of controversial Quebec law that bans face-coverings”, The Star, 1st December 2017,, (accessed 22nd March 2018).

[17] S. Fine, “Christian doctors challenge Ontario’s assisted-death referral requirement”, The Globe and Mail, 24th March 2017,, (accessed 25th March 2018).

[18] “Statement on Court Ruling January 31, 2018”, Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies, 1st February 2018,, (accessed 25th March 2018).

[19] B. Platt, ‘“Extremely disappointed’: Religious groups meet with minister on summer jobs program, but no compromise coming”, National Post, 28th March 2018,, (accessed 2nd April 2018); A. Wherry, “Labour Minister holds the Liberal line on abortion and Canada Summer Jobs” CBC, 24th January 2018, (accessed 9th May 2018).
[20] M. Swan, “Interfaith leaders ask Canada to drop attestation for summer jobs funding”, National Catholic Reporter, 26th January 2018,, (accessed 2nd April 2018).

[21] B. Platt, op. cit.

[22] Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, 2016 Hate Crime Reporting – Canada, Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, (accessed 27th March 2018).

[23] League for Human Rights, Annual Audit of Antisemitic Incidents 2016, B’nai Brith Canada, p. 11,, (accessed 27th March 2018).

[24] Ibid, page 12.

[25] S. Sherring, “Young man arrested in racist graffiti attacks”, Ottowa Sun, 19th November 2016,, (accessed 27th March 2018).

[26] “More anti-Semitic graffiti painted on Hwy. 400 overpass”, CityNews, 7th September 2017,, (accessed 27th March 2018).

[27] “2 Edmonton synagogues receive anti-Semitic hate mail sent across Canada”, CBC, 19th December 2017,, (accessed 27th March 2018).

[28] “Montreal Gas Station Employee Fired over Alleged Anti-Semitism”, The Canadian Jewish News, 28th March 2018,, (accessed 2nd April 2018).

[29] Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, 2016 Hate Crime Reporting – Canada.

[30] Ibid.

[31] “Who is Quebec mosque attack suspect Alexandre Bissonnette?”, BBC, 31st January 2017,, (accessed 24th April 2018).

[32] “Alexandre Bissonnette pleads guilty to Quebec mosque attack”, BBC, 28th March 2018,, (accessed 2nd April 2018).

[33] “Man arrested after Concordia University bomb threat targeting Muslim students”, CBC, 2nd March 2017,, (accessed 28th March 2018).

[34] “Defaced Qur’an, hateful note sent to Quebec City mosque where January shootings occurred”, CBC, 19th July 2017,, (accessed 2nd April 2018).

[35] “Head of Quebec City mosque latest target in apparent string of hate crimes”, Montreal Gazette, 30th August 2017,, (accessed 28th March 2018).

[36] K. Dubinski, “Man in southwestern Ontario charged after family attacked with bat amid shouts of ‘ISIS’”, CBC, 8th December 2017,, (accessed 28th March 2018).

[37] D. Thurton, “Sign outside Fort McMurray Islamic centre defaced”, CBC, 14th February 2018,, (accessed 20th March 2018).

[38] Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, 2016 Hate Crime Reporting – Canada.

[39] “Man arrested in wake of Toronto church fire on Easter Sunday”, The Catholic Register, 18th April 2017,, (accessed 18th March 2018).

[40] “Church vandalized with spray-paint; police investigating”, CTV Kitchener, 30th August 2017,, (accessed 22th March 2018).

[41] J. Smith, “B.C. church defaced with disturbing anti-Christian graffiti”, The Abbotsford News, 17th November 2017,, (accessed 22nd March 2018).

[42] S. Anderson, “Precious Blood Parish victim to ‘bloody; vandalism attacks”, Surrey Now-Leader,, (accessed 22nd March 2018).

[43] “Offers of help pour in after vandals smash up tiny N.B. church”, CTV News, 27th November 2017,, (accessed 22nd March 2018).

[44] S. Bradley, “Halifax churches desecrated by Easter morning graffiti”, CBC, 1st April 2018,, (accessed 2nd April 2018).

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.