ASPP Books: "Free to Believe: Rethinking Freedom of Conscience and Religion in Canada"

Thursday, August 22, 2013


Mary Anne Waldron

University of Toronto Press, 2013

Christine McKenna Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences

It was revealed this week that the government of Quebec is aiming to introduce a new piece of legislation called the “Charter of Quebec Values.” This bill would ban the display of religious symbols in the province’s public institutions – including by civil service employees, who would be restricted from wearing articles like hijabs, turbans, and “conspicuous” crucifixes to work. The plan has elicited a great deal of criticism, and considering its function of limiting citizens’ religious expression, it likely would not be legal under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

In Free to Believe: Rethinking Freedom of Conscience and Religion in Canada, Mary Ann Waldron, a professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Victoria, explores the complex relationship between Canada’s laws and its citizens’ beliefs. She considers how obstacles arise from the diverse and sometimes opposing beliefs of Canadians, and suggests that “we need to pay more attention to belief conflicts and their influence on the law”. The “beliefs” in question are not limited to religion, but also include “secularism [and other] commitments of conscience that drive our decision-making processes” – this spectrum would include, for example, the belief in personal autonomy held by advocates of euthanasia, as well as the religious beliefs of some who are against it.

According to Waldron, the right to express “conflicting beliefs of all kinds” is an important element in a properly functioning democracy, so it is important to understand how much protection there is for these freedoms in Canada. By looking at a series of real-world examples, she seeks to “rethink” the notions of religion and freedom of conscience, and investigates their influence on Canadian public policy and a range of social issues. Though citizens may not always agree with the beliefs of their governments – or with each other – it is crucial that they remain “free to believe”. 


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