The Muslim Canadian Congress (MCC), a grassroots organization of secular and liberal Muslims hosted an event in Toronto on Sunday to thank Minister Kenney for his courageous stand in banning the face veil from Canada's Citizenship ceremonies. The decision enjoys widespread support among Canadians across the country.
While most members of the audience were supportive of the Minister's decision, a few objections were also raised at the event with respect to the constitutionality of such a ban.
For example, Fatema Dada of the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association invoked the religious freedoms argument in the following manner when she stated, "If somebody believes in it [the niqab] then it's their right to practice it." According to Dada, it should be up to individual Canadians to determine and express their own unique religiosity.
True, but does the argument stop here? Do some religious practices still warrant restrictions? And how does Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms come to bear on this issue?
The Charter includes the following freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and
(d) freedom of association.
What constitutes a religious right under the Charter then? Is deviant religious practice a religious right according to the provisions of the Charter? Yes, most certainly. Fatema Dada is correct in pointing out this aspect of the Charter. The whole purpose of separating religion and state is to ensure that the state maintains a certain degree of neutrality towards diverse religious practices. It is therefore not up to the state to determine the authenticity of a particular religious practice. If some individuals believe Islam mandates the burka or face veil, then the state must not question that understanding.
This interpretation of Charter provisions would certainly confer legitimacy on the practice of wearing the burka, even though its proponents hold a minority opinion deemed fallacious by the Muslim majority.
The question however remains: Like other religious rights, is the right to wear a burka an absolute right, or can it be subjected to reasonable limits, and if so, what are those limits?
Some religious practices, however deviant, are benign, while others may be quite inimical to society. Furthermore, some religious rights impinge on the rights of other individuals or of society, in which case, is it justified to place limits on them? The burka or face coverings most certainly fall under this category as crime-enabling garbs.
The right to wear the burka is not an absolute right. The Minister, in mandating removal of the face veil in citizenship ceremonies has taken an important and admirable first step in regulating burka use in public.