How hard is it to accommodate religious practice?

Kevin L. Boonstra

THE PAST several weeks have been difficult ones in Canada when it comes to the accommodation of religious belief and practice.

The Quebec town of Herouxville has published 'standards' for its community. While the town purports to welcome all people without discrimination, its stated goal is to inform new arrivals how they can integrate into the community.

There are some obvious standards based on Canadian criminal law. These include the statement that Herouxville considers that "killing women in public beatings, or burning them alive" are not part of their community standards. That seems reasonable.

However, there is also a 'standard' that patients in hospitals are offered "traditional meals," and another indicating that, in schools, "children cannot carry any weapons . . . symbolic or not."

Standards which protect the safety of people are laudable; but some of these standards appear to communicate a refusal to accommodate cultural or religious differences. Precluding students from carrying weapons makes sense; but that particular standard appears to be a response to the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Multani (March, 2006).

In that decision, the court permitted a Sikh student to carry a kirpan, or ceremonial dagger, because of the need to accommodate his religious belief and practice. A standard forbidding 'symbolic' weapons portrays a negative message regarding the Sikh religious practice of carrying a kirpan.

Perhaps even more troubling is the standard regarding hospital food. How does it harm the community if a patient in a hospital requires a non-traditional meal to accommodate his or her religious beliefs?

Despite purporting to invite all to live there without discrimination, Herouxville is telling the world that religious accommodation is not a standard to which it ascribes.

Those in the religious majority may identify with this. Those in the religious minority may not feel welcome at all in Herouxville. Religious freedom requires that we accommodate religious practices, to the extent that they do not pose unmanageable health or safety risks.

That brings us to another key event. The parents of the sextuplets born in Vancouver are Jehovah's Witnesses and, based on their religious beliefs, refuse to approve blood transfusions for their new children.

Two of the children have died; the cause of the deaths is not known. The B.C. government has obtained court orders to seize three of the surviving sextuplets, to ensure they get transfusions if deemed medically advisable.

The father has sworn an affidavit in the court proceedings concerning the seizure of the children. He explains that during his wife's pregnancy, they were given the opportunity to abort some of the fetuses -- and they refused, because of their religious beliefs. He also says that just prior to the children's birth, doctors said they support parents' decisions not to resuscitate children born so premature. The parents decided to resuscitate the children at birth.

These appear to be parents who very much want their children to live. The father's affidavit says the refusal to approve transfusions was motivated by a desire to obey God. He describes leaving the hospital in distress when "they were violating [our] little girl" with a transfusion. While it may seem peculiar or wrong to many, this is evidently a deeply held belief -- and the parents appear to be suffering because of it.

The difficulty is that the children are not of an age to choose their own beliefs. The courts in Canada have protected the constitutional rights of parents to rear children according to their religious beliefs. However, the extent of this right is not without limits.

In a similar case involving Jehovah's Witnesses in 1995, a majority of the Supreme Court concluded the right of parents to rear children according to religious beliefs, including that of choosing medical treatments, is fundamental to freedom of religion. They also said imposition of medical treatment was a justified breach of religious freedom.

These are cases in which the courts have held that a child's right to life trumps the parents' right to freedom of religion. One media commentator stated that since we do not live in a theocracy, this result is inevitable.

That is a superficial analysis which does not accord parents appropriate respect and toleration. It also undermines Canada's proud history of accommodating religious practices that seem odd or untenable to the majority.

There's a fine line between religious intolerance and appropriate accommodation. Herouxville has exhibited a level of intolerance by setting standards that appear to interfere with the need for appropriate religious accommodation.

Occasions do arise in which interfering with religious practices may be justified. If the surviving sextuplets required blood transfusions to save their lives, many would agree the parents' beliefs could not be accommodated. But even if this is the right conclusion, we must recognize these parents have had to deal with something horrific, which most of us will never have to grapple with: choosing between what you believe is obedience to God and life for your children.

Limits to religious accommodation should be made cautiously, remembering that respect for perspectives other than one's own is the cornerstone of religious freedom.

Kevin Boonstra is a partner in the law firm Kuhn & Company, in Vancouver and Abbotsford.

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