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October 4:  Sonia Sikka (University of Ottawa)

3:30 pm to 5:00 pm in BSB B138

“Should we abolish religious freedom”

Abstract: Religious freedom has long been a protected right in liberal democratic nations and is standardly included within international conventions on human rights.  Freedom of thought and association are basic liberal principles, but the naming and institution of religious freedom in particular singles out religion as a unique category of belief and practice, requiring special protection – as well as special exclusion, we should note, via the correlative principle of secularism.  Is this singling out legitimate?  Is there truly something unique about religious belief, identity and/or practice that warrants special regulative measures?  Or is the existence of such measures merely the artefact of a specific period of Western history?

I argue that, in operation, the legal and political positioning of religion as subject to special protection as well as exclusion is not warranted and can have pernicious effects.  In practice, legislative guarantees of religious freedom tend to privilege and thereby incentivize particular forms of religion at the expense of others.  In addition, courts and legislators have been increasingly hard-pressed to determine what counts as “religion” and to justify accommodative measures for religious beliefs over non-religious ones.  In many cases, terms such as “belief,” “lack of belief,” and “philosophical belief” have been added to protections for religion, which have often already included conscience, but these modifications raise the question of whether religion should be taken as paradigmatic for the protections in question.  I propose that we should move towards a model based on the broader principle of protection for minority beliefs and practices against laws of general application that purport to be neutral but are the product of majoritarian decision-making processes that sometimes compromise equality.