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  • Fighting over God: A Legal and Political History of Religious Freedom in Canada by Janet Epp Buckingham
  • Mary Anne Waldron
Janet Epp Buckingham. Fighting over God: A Legal and Political History of Religious Freedom in Canada. McGill-Queen’s University Press. xiv, 329. $77.00

Canadians pride themselves on their tolerance and their multiculturalism. Occasionally we see cracks in this flattering image, such as when the Quebec government threatens a charter of values (which would incidentally have caused the firing of many devout Sikhs or Muslims in the public service) or when a Linda Gibbons is taken off to jail for her eleventh year for peacefully protesting abortion. But any reader of Janet Epp Buckingham’s book Fighting over God will quickly wonder how the image developed in the first place.

Beginning with a review of the Canadian history of legal protections for freedom of religion, from the Quebec Act of 1774 to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the author describes, rather, a history of intolerance and conflict. After the brief historical review of the legislative and some of the definitional issues, she turns to selected areas of conflict for the [End Page 387] seven middle chapters. Each is presented in terms of its history, debates, and legal outcomes. The topics treated are of broad, general interest, including disputes over religious broadcasting, rights to educate children, efforts to regulate religious practices, and restrictions on aspects of family life. The discussion provides highly valuable background information and context for those hoping to comment intelligently on the current manifestation of the problem.

Buckingham, in her introduction, identifies three themes emerging in her book. These are, first, the French Catholic and English Protestant divide; second, the position of religious minorities; and, third, the rise of secularization. All themes find their places in many of the chapters. The Catholic-Protestant conflict has, of course, primarily a historical focus and influences the chapters on education and freedom of expression. Religious minorities feature prominently in discussions of religious practices and religious institutions, and the influence of modern secularism arises in most contexts, perhaps most poignantly in the chapter on family life and in its more theoretical aspects in the introduction and conclusion to the book.

Yet, adding to the book’s depth, a further theme is discernible in many of the chapters: developments in law that take as their major premise the supreme importance of individual autonomy conflict with the importance of the communal life of religious believers. This theme occurs early in the third chapter on education, which in part describes the significance to religious communities of educating children in their heritage and in the creedal and moral principles of the group. It continues in the discussion of employment and the limited exemptions for religious employers to restrict hiring to co-religionists to protect the cohesion of the group’s mission. It also underlines the issues in family life where the family unit, as a part of a religious community, finds its self-conception deeply challenged by individualistic legal interpretations. The theme is nicely emphasized in the final topical chapter, which focuses specifically on the regulation of religious institutions. The chapter delineates the various and extensive controls to which religious organizations are subject in Canadian law and the difficulty of fitting their structures and objectives into the required legal norms. This perspective, so often absent in judicial treatment of religious freedom, adds a particularly helpful and insightful aspect to the historical and legal review in these middle chapters.

Buckingham’s conclusion is cautiously hopeful. It points out that, despite the history of conflict, the way is still open for a genuine acceptance of diversity of perspective. It clearly emerges that achieving this goal is not threatened by the perpetuation or protection of religious belief. Rather, the threat now arises from Canadians’ common acceptance of secularism as a brave new faith, one that cannot tolerate competition from more traditional systems of belief. But there are still voices raised [End Page 388] in favour of the vision of pluralism that, within a neutral state, can live with divergent creedal and moral viewpoints. Fighting over God is a welcome contribution to their chorus and a...


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pp. 387-389
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