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Where Do Atheists Belong in the Office of Religious Freedom?

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Many comments regarding the appropriateness and potential effectiveness of the Canadian Office of Religious Freedom have been made; however, with the exception of a few reporters, no one has noted the exclusion of Secular Humanist or atheist organizations from whatever consultation that occurred.

The frosting on that cake was the failure to invite representatives from any Secular Humanist organizations to the press conference formally announcing the creation of the office and the appointment of Dr. Andrew Bennett as its ambassador.

Ironically, the press conference was held in the main mosque of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Jama`at Canada. This Muslim group regularly invites Secular Humanist representatives to its World Religions Conference and respects the atheist perspective of those representatives. Perhaps the Harper government could take instruction.

We have tried to participate. On behalf of Secular Connexion Séculaire (SCS), I tried to present our case to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, John Baird at the time of the original announcement. Months later, Mr. Baird, or rather one of his minions, responded by repeating passages from the original announcement that did not mention persecuted atheists at all.

The first indication that the Harper government had thought, even in passing, about the plight of atheists highlighted by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, was Prime Minister Harper's response to a direct question about the matter from a reporter at the press conference.

I do appreciate the commitment this response indicates and will be in touch with the new ambassador to find ways to participate in the work of the Office of Religious Freedom.

In every country run by religiously dominated governments, atheists are systematically persecuted. And, yes, in every country with atheist governments believers are persecuted.

Any persecution of any person because of personal philosophy, religious or not, is not acceptable and we Canadians need to speak out strongly against such persecution.

At the same time, we must recognize that, even in the United States, several states ban atheists from testifying in court and in some cases from running for public office.

In Canada, the Income Tax Act discriminates against Secular Humanist organizations with its charitable status regulations by extending rights denied to Secular Humanists to religions for simply promoting their theist religions.

O Canada is theist in both official languages and sexist in English. SCS had proposed a solution to this situation on its website as a part of its policy of Open Secularism.

Our efforts must include work to eliminate these flaws and any other discrimination against or favouritism for any personal philosophy, religious or not.

Ambassador Bennett is newly appointed and the challenges facing the Office of Religious Freedom are large. His task is made more difficult by an inappropriately small budget, legitimate opposition party concerns about the removal of funding from other human rights organizations, and an apparent religious bias in the forming of the Office of Religious Freedoms.

More is to be gained by trying to participate in the efforts of the Office of Religious Freedom and by assisting Dr. Bennett than is to be gained by sniping from the sidelines.

SCS intends to vigorously pursue inclusion in the process.

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