In a recent posting I came out in defence of the Ontario government’s decision to allow the use of Sharia law in matters of divorce arbitration. I had argued that because it was being used anyway it was better for it to be regulated, therefore offering the protection of civil law to women who maybe victimized by men wishing to exploit Sharia in their favour. I had also pointed out that since we granted the right to people of Orthodox Jewish and Christian faiths it would be discriminatory not to give Muslims the same privilege.
Given the loud outcry against the decision, it was to be assumed that the government would probably respond in some manner or other. It was only a matter of them trying to figure out which move would cost them the least in political terms. Late last Sunday (September 11/05) Premier McGuinty announced the scrapping of the whole religious arbitration program.
This prompted an immediate outcry by the Jewish and Christian groups who currently utilize the system, and from Muslims who wished to implement the process. In the long run though this, from a political point of view, was the safest course of action. There would have been more of a likelihood of this coming back to haunt him if he had implemented it. The cross-societal backlash against Islam from both the left and the right makes the cancellation of the whole program easier for a lot of people to swallow.
An aspect of this story that has not received any airing by the press was brought up in a column in today’s Globe and Mail by Rick Salutin. He brought up the issue of how this process fits into the concept of separation of Church and State. According to Mr. Salutin, this decision by the McGuinty government is a good thing because it represents a further distancing of secular governance from religion.
Mr. Salutin argues that the integration of the two is a bad thing because of the ways in which governments can use religion as a disguise for nationalistic rhetoric: doing something in the name of God is a blanket justification that doesn’t require any other excuse or reason. This can also be used for social policy and other contentious issues.
As an example, he cites the public funding of religious-based schools. It used to be that the province of Ontario only funded Catholic schools up until grade ten. From that point onwards if parents wanted their children to attend a Catholic School they would have to pay. Since this law was changed there has been increasing pressure on the province to fund all religious schools equally. If you fund one system, why can’t you fund all of them?
The reason Catholic schools had received any public funding in the first place is tied up in a deal made at the time of Confederation in 1867 to placate Quebec by guaranteeing that French-speaking people (predominantly Catholic) would be able to receive education anywhere in Canada, and in return Quebec would fund Protestant schools, ensuring English-speaking people had a public system they could attend.
The problem becomes that a province only has a limited amount of money it can spend on education. If more and more of its money gets siphoned off into funding religious school boards, what does that do to the public system? It used to be that you could earmark your property taxes to be spent either on public schools or Catholic schools, but since the previous provincial government, in an attempt to win votes by pretending to lower property taxes, removed that component, there is just one fund for all. (And property taxes climbed anyway as the same government introduced new assessment measures that increased the worth of homes, but not their market value)
When this was coupled with the cuts made to public school budgets by the same government, we saw an erosion of quality begin in the public school system. Without the outside support of the community that the formally private Catholic schools receive, the public schools have rapidly becoming second-rate institutions, especially those in poorer neighbourhoods.
Mr. Salutin argues that giving legal sanction to religious courts was part of a trend that gave momentum to those who wanted more funding for private religious schools from the public purse. The more religion becomes integrated into the public system, the more people will demand that it is funded on par with all aspects of life.
Looking at Mr. McGuinty’s decision to revoke the right of all religious arbitration in family court matters on its own, one could be tempted to think of it as the easy and expedient way out of a complex situation. When you think of it in the broader terms of separation of Church and State it becomes more understandable.
The Canadian constitution guarantees everybody the right to free religious expression, but the laws themselves are secular. They must apply to everyone no matter what their creed. The same should apply to all public policy: no one religion should dictate how the rest of a pluralistic society lives. Whether this is indirectly through the funding of religious-specific schools at the expense of public ones, or directly by writing laws that enforce any one’s moral code on everybody else.
Although I supported Mr. McGuinty’s earlier decision to recognize Muslim arbitration boards, I also support his response to the protests. He has shown that he will not allow people’s fears and prejudice to interfere with maintaining a society that recognises all religions equally.
A democracy can’t grant special rights to some and not to others, otherwise it is no longer a democracy. When we allow religion to dictate policy that is exactly what we end up doing. We have limited our options to one narrow view of the world, and are ignoring the fact that there are other voices out there whose opinions are just as valid.
Probably these thoughts never even crossed Mr. McGuinty’s mind as he searched for a way out of the political time-bomb he had lit. But every once in a while even a blind pig can find an acorn, and a politician can do the right thing by accident.