Monday, December 17, 2007

The Other Side of Multiculturalism

The Supreme Court of Canada issued a judgment recently over the issue of the secular courts being able to intervene in situations where a divorcing husband refuses to cooperate in the process of granting a proper Jewish religious divorce. The Court held that the courts could intervene and could actually grant damages against a husband who refused to cooperate in such a process after promising to do so in the context of a secular divorce settlement.

To my mind this presents another side to the issue of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism is often presented as a pernicious surrendering of authority over the affairs of persons who should be protected by the state. The recent murder of a young woman at the hands of her father over the issue of wearing the hijab (or, I think, really over the failure to submit to traditional fatherly control) has certainly brought this debate back to the fore in Canada. What the Supreme Court of Canada's decision shows, however, that what comes with decision to pursue one's beliefs in a multi-cultural society is ultimately a submission to the rule of law and civil authority. That authority has to shape its processes to allow different cultures to operate but there ultimately is a limit and that limit is the price of admission.

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1 comment:

Die said...

Multiculturalism is one frame one could choose for last week's court decision. I chose the religion/faith frame, myself.

The dissenting judges pointed out that the Jewish woman who wanted the "get" (Jewish divorce papers) was not, in fact, being denied any freedoms in the civil sphere. She was free all along to remarry, she just could not do so in her own faith. Because they did not see any of her civil rights being infringed, they did not wish to become involved in what they saw as religious matters and they took a different position.

The reason I don't see the issue decided last week as "multicultural" is that there are religions which are adhered to by the "dominant" or at least formerly dominant, groups in Canada which have belief systems that are wildly oppressive towards women and to lesbians and gays. The Catholic Church for example. One must seek an annulment to remarry within the Catholic Church and there are people who are denied, depriving them of their right to remarry. The courts have never stepped in on that issue, likely because no one has ever thought they could get a civil court to overturn the powerful Catholic Church.

In Catholic schools, teachers continue to sign "morality clauses", stating that they will not do anything in their personal life which conflicts with the precepts of the Catholic Church. Hence, if they are discovered to be gay, they can be, and are sometimes, fired. Catholic schools are essentially exempt from human rights codes because of their religious beliefs. This ruling seemed to suggest to me that, should one of these fired teachers manage someday to go all the way to the SCC, they might actually win.

In the meantime, the mainstream, "white" Catholic Church continues to deny women the opportunity to become priests, to tell lies about women's sexuality and to destroy the lives of many lesbian and gay youth.

The question seems to me to be, "to what extent are religious organizations exempt from the laws of the land, regardless of whether they are the Christian religions practised by people who came and settled on First Nations land or those religious groups that came later?"