OTTAWA — Disrupting a religious service is likely to remain a crime, since MPs on the House of Commons justice committee have agreed to change a controversial part of proposed legislation aimed at modernizing the Criminal Code.
This spring, the Liberal government moved to rid the Criminal Code of sections that are redundant or obsolete, including those which involve challenging someone to a duel or fraudulently pretending to practice witchcraft.
One of the changes proposed in Bill C-51 would have removed Section 176, which makes it a crime to use threat or force to obstruct a clergyman or minister from celebrating a worship service or carrying out any other duty related to his job.
That came under heavy criticism from a number of major religious groups, including the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and B'nai Brith Canada, who urged MPs on the committee to keep that section in the Code.
The MPs also voted Wednesday to update the language so that it is gender neutral and refers to all religious and spiritual officiants, instead of just Christian clergy.
Liberal MP Anthony Housefather, who chairs the committee, said even though the section is rarely used, it is not without merit.
"It allowed many religious groups to feel recognized within the Criminal Code, to feel that their services had a special recognition and protection and we didn't see the value in removing it," Housefather said Thursday.
"I do think in Canada today, with the number of incidents that happen at churches, synagogues and mosques, with whatever is going on right now across the country, the last thing I want any religious group to feel is they have less protection than they did before," he said.
The last thing I want any religious group to feel is they have less protection than they did before.Liberal MP Anthony Housefather
Faisal Mirza, the chair of the Canadian Muslim Lawyers Association, made that point when he appeared before the committee.
"We cannot be blind that the current climate of increased incidents of hate, specifically at places of worship, supports that religious leaders may be in need of more, not less, focused protection," Mirza said last month.
Mirza also said that while other areas of criminal law can address the deadly shooting a Quebec City mosque in January, it is important to remember that the attack happened months after someone left a pig's head at the door of the same mosque.
Rob Nicholson, the Conservative justice critic, said he was thinking about Section 176 when watching news of Sunday's massacre at a church in Texas.
"It certainly is not the time to be doing it," Nicholson said of removing religious protections.
Nicholson said he received about 900 emails on the issue last weekend and believes that played a role in bringing the Liberals around.
David Taylor, a spokesman for Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, said the government will carefully consider the amendments.