Some time ago, Prime Minister Stephen Harper observed that separation of church and state is an American constitutional concept and does not apply to the Canadian constitution. He went on to say that separation of church and state in Canada has meant, traditionally, that the government will not interfere with religion. The sad thing is that he is right.
There are no clauses in the Constitution Act of 1867 (the BNA Act to those born before 1982) that separate church and state. Indeed, our Head of State, the Monarchy, is also the Head of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith.
Since that Monarchy is directly involved with the Church of England and, by extension, the Anglican Church of Canada, the best the Crown can do is to tolerate all other churches (and atheism) in Canada. Enter the tradition of non-interference with religion.
We non-believers have to rely on Supreme Court of Canada comments, notably in court decisions regarding the Lord's Day Act in New Brunswick (Big M Drugs vs. the Crown et al), for protection from government interference. We have the right to freedom from religion, based on that and the fact that some official bodies, notably the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal (formerly Commission), have taken action to remove enforced religion from the workplace.
The default condition in Canada, then, is that religion is a part of normal government affairs. The tradition of non-interference in religious affairs by government does not necessarily work the other way. Religions have a de facto mandate to lobby the government although their charitable status is in some danger if they lobby too overtly about specific legislation.
If we non-believers are to influence government or at least have a voice, we have to use our right to freedom from religion to clear Canadian laws and symbols of favoritism toward religion.
Some progress has been made, but mostly as tolerance for religions other than Christianity: non-believers are merely collateral beneficiaries.
Non-religious affirmations, such as the one Michaële Jean took when she became Governor-General can replace the oaths of offices for all positions from municipal councillor to governor general. These affirmations are there to accommodate pressures from minority religions in a multicultural society.
In 1965, we replaced the Red Ensign with the Maple Leaf, thus removing religious symbols from our national flag. Replacing the Red Ensign was an attempt to appease Québec by removing the English Union Jack from our flag. Few of the politicians who did that thought anything about the fact that the Union Jack is a composite of the crosses of St. George, St. David, and St. Andrew.
Favoritism toward religion is most blatant in the charities categories in the Income Tax Act. Here, religion has its own category and the tone of it is different from all the other categories since it does not require any demonstration of community service. Yes, it assumes that advancement of religion is a community service . . . and the point is?
That religious category is: Advancement of religion -- "To advance religion in the charitable sense means to preach and advance the spiritual teachings of a religious faith and to maintain the doctrines and spiritual observances on which those teachings are based."
Examples of its practice are: "establishing and maintaining buildings for religious worship and other religious use, organizing and providing religious instruction, carrying out pastoral and missionary work."
Other provisions in the Advancement of Religion category include the right to have building funds, a right that is not available under the charitable status allowed for Humanist organizations. Religious clergy can deduct residence expenses from their income tax; our officiants cannot.
Removal of these provisions is highly unlikely, so Secular Connexion Séculaire is working on adding a category for Humanist groups that will have similar conditions. This should be defined in a way that permits the advancement of socially positive philosophy.
Since we do not enjoy a succinct statement separating church and state, like the First Amendment of the American constitution, non-believers will have to rely on our system of precedents and on Canadian jurisprudence to make progress. This will be a long and tedious struggle requiring considerable effort just to get politicians' attention -- and persistent, consistent pressure on them to accommodate our philosophy.