Dialogue on Human Rights Relating to Religious Belief and Practices

The Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) has invited citizens to submit short papers (six to eight pages) toward a dialogue on human rights, specifically relating to religious belief and practice as shaped by the Ontario Human Rights Code and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Several papers that make the final selection will be presented in January 2012 at a community dialogue, featuring diverse communities, academics and human rights lawyers and practitioners, hosted by the OHRC in partnership with the University of Toronto’s Religion in the Public Sphere Initiative and the Faculty of Law.

The commission is accepting brief proposals (one to three pages) until October 14, 2011. The topics include:

  • Human rights and the protection of religious belief and practice in a secular society.
  • The general exemption in Section 24(1)(a) of the Ontario Human Rights Code that applies to religious, philanthropic, educational, fraternal or social institution or organization:
  • The right under section 5 to equal treatment with respect to employment is not infringed where:

    (a) A religious, philanthropic, educational, fraternal or social institution or organization that is primarily engaged in serving the interests of persons identified by their race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, creed, sex, age, marital status or disability employs only, or gives preference in employment to, persons similarly identified if the qualification is a reasonable and bona fide qualification because of the nature of the employment.

  • Intersection of Code grounds: Discrimination issues often arise because of a combination of human rights grounds. For example, a young lone mother receiving social assistance who is looking for housing or employment might experience discrimination based on her sex, age, family status and receipt of social assistance. If she is a racialized person or is a member of a specific creed, or has a disability, her experience of discrimination may change or be compounded.
  • Extension and limits in providing and designing accommodation of religious beliefs and practices in diverse organizational contexts.

More information on other potential paper themes and selection criteria can be found here.

Although it is impossible to establish a standard method for resolving conflicts between religious freedoms and human rights, this dialogue is a welcomed one. In light of the present trends toward multiculturalism, globalization and increased religious intolerance, developing a common understanding of human rights is becoming even more essential.

Ensuring the dialogue involves religious groups, as well as those who uphold, practice, write and teach the law, will make it more relevant.

At a 2005 human rights panel, Piet de Klerk, the Netherlands’ Ambassador at Large for Human Rights stated,

Some say freedom of religion is the mother of all human rights,” and “all human rights are universal and interconnected.” Further, “the degree to which freedom of religion or belief is upheld reflects the general human rights situation in a particular country.”

In other words, the more a people respects others’ freedom of religion or belief, the more the people respect human rights in general. And vice versa.
There’s no doubt that religious tolerance is crucial to functioning societies. Intolerance breeds resentment and anger, which often gives rise to violence, discrimination, oppression, incitement, fear and other antisocial acts.

The only way to counteract intolerance is through education and understanding, best facilitated by public dialogue. This is, in part, the intent of the OHRC’s discussion panel, featuring the selected papers. The other part is to help citizens understand the role of our existing human rights regime when it comes to dealing with freedom of belief, and possibly to understand the system’s shortcomings and how it might be improved.

What do you think? Does tolerance of religion and creed indicate how well a society respects other human rights? How important is human rights law to support tolerance and respect? Can we hope to eradicate intolerance with dialogue and debate? Is an academic forum like the one proposed here the answer? Is there a more direct community-oriented method to increase civic understanding of human rights issues?


  1. The question is a bit more complex because it often presents itself as a religious group seeking accommodation of its own intolerance. Thus the nursing home case in Ontario (fundamentalist Christian group fires lesbian employee), Catholic schools routinely firing teachers who divorce, etc.

    It will be interesting to see what the OHRC gets.

  2. @John G – the question is more than just complex, its loaded. It seems to presume that opposition to a religious freedom is a form of intolerance.

    The author states that “developing a common understanding of human rights is becoming even more essential”. I’m not sure that’s possible. Using John G’s example, reasonable people can disagree about which rights should prevail when two or more rights come into conflict.

  3. Perhaps the problem lies in “tolerating” rather than “appreciating”.

    “How can there be peace without people understanding each other,

    and how can this be if they don’t know each other?”.

    Lester B. Pearson, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, 1957

  4. With much respect to Mr Pearson, it’s not that easy. Lots of people know and understand each other very well indeed and hate each other as a result.

    Freedom of religion cannot possibly mean – in our society – that whatever anyone wants to do in the name of his/her religion must be accepted. Like any other ‘right’, it runs into limits. Defining the limits will not attract general agreement. Especially when the SCC has essentially said that the religious belief that the Charter protects is whatever anyone believes sincerely, whether anyone else at all believes it.

    Good luck with all that. We need some non-religious base line of acceptable conduct. Several centures of bloodshed taught northern European countries that. Not everyone in the world is persuaded (yet).

  5. As the saying goes nothing worth having comes easy. I’m in full agreement that you can understand and know someone and still hate; alas we are only human and there is good and bad in everyone.

    And, yes there should be a “non-religious base line of acceptable conduct”. IMHO, church and state should be separate. With that said, hopefully somewhere along the line we can all accept our common humanity and not just tolerate but accept our differences and this too will take much work and will not be easy.