TORONTO, Canada, July 20, 2004 — Will the Bible get its day in court? Not in Canada’s citizenship courts, apparently. The Canadian Bible Society‘s almost 50 year-old practice of offering free Scriptures to new citizens at Canadian citizenship ceremonies was ended in May by Senior Citizenship Judge, Michel Simard.
In a letter to the Bible Society dated May 7th, Judge Simard and Citizenship Registrar, Patricia Birkett, informed the Bible Society that notwithstanding a previous agreement with the Citizenship Commission, Bibles and other holy books are no longer to be displayed at citizenship court ceremonies and distributed to citizenship court applicants.
The freedom of individuals to believe in, practice, and promote the religion of choice without (government) interference, harrassment, or other repercussions – as long as practices based on, or resulting from, those beliefs do not break the law (e.g. do not encourage or result in fraud, tax evasion, murder, terrorism, acts designed to undermine the government or the constitution, the use of unethical persuasion tactics, etcetera).
The practice of discouraging religious freedom and the freedom to express and/or promote all or certain religious beliefs – with repercussions ranging from discrimination and harassment to prevention and prosecution (by legal and/or illegal means). Does not cover legitimate legal measures designed to prevent and/or prosecute illegal practices such as fraud, tax evasion, murder, terrorism, acts designed to undermine the government or the constitution, the use of unethical persuasion tactics, etcetera.
a) Refusing to acknowledge and support the right of individuals to have their own beliefs and related legitimate practices.
b) Also, the unwillingness to have one’s own beliefs and related practices critically evaluated.
The following do not constitute religious intolerance:
Acknowledging and supporting that individuals have the right and freedom to their own beliefs and related legitimate practices, without necessarily validating those beliefs or practices.
“Canada is a multicultural nation where freedom of religion is guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” they wrote, “…we find that allowing holy books to be made available at citizenship ceremonies detracts from this message and could be construed as a tacit endorsement of certain religions.”
The letter did not indicate how banning holy books would help the cause of freedom of religion.
“They say this is about freedom of religion, but it actually curtails freedom of religion,” said Reverend Phyllis Nesbitt, the Society’s National Director. “The ruling is more an indicator of declining spiritual fervour. This great nation of Canada was built on a strong religious foundation. To deny holy books at citizenship ceremonies reinforces secular, irreligious philosophies rather than undergirding religious freedoms.”
Nesbitt also points out that a 1998 agreement between the Society and then-Senior Judge, Agnès Jaouich, was more multicultural, as it allowed all holy books to be represented in the courts.
Under terms of that agreement, the Society was permitted to offer only a silent presence at citizenship ceremonies across the country, with a table set up and a sign offering the free Scriptures. Bibles could only be given to people who asked for one. The Bible Society has complied with these restrictions, only addressing the public when invited by the court to do so.
A departmental spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada (CIC), Jean-Pierre Morin, told Christian Week, “we have had, in the past, complaints from clients who felt that holy books were being forced upon them.” He reportedly could not say when or how many complaints had been received.
An unidentified CIC spokeswoman told the National Post that “the distribution of holy books was stopped because Ottawa could not ensure all faith groups were present to offer their holy books to the 150,000 immigrants and their guests who take the oath of citizenship each year.”
Nesbitt wrote to Judge Simard on May 19th, appealing to him to reconsider his decision, which had been arrived at with no prior consultation with the Bible Society.
Her letter noted the long history of the Society’s citizenship court ministry, which began at Pier 21 in Halifax where tens of thousands of immigrants began arriving in Canada after the war. She also noted the benefits of the Maple Leaf Edition New Testaments (which have a grade five reading level) for those who are learning English as a second language.
The Bible Society has not received a reply in the two months since Nesbitt’s letter.
In the interim, the Society is looking at other ways to distribute the Christian Scriptures.
In British Columbia, the Bibles have been made available to Canada Fire, a Christian ministry working in the high schools. In other areas of the country, possibilities are being considered for continuing the ministry to new citizens either through the Canadian Bible Society’s retail outlets or through local churches. “If the government shuts a door, we will still find an opportunity to distribute the Word,” noted Bruce Kemp, District Director for Northern Alberta.
One Ministry Among Many
Over the past three years, more than 60,000 New Testaments were requested by new Canadians through the Bible Society’s citizenship court ministry, 25,000 of those last year alone. But this represents only a small portion of the Society’s work.
The Bible Society provides more than 400,000 Bibles and New Testaments each year to such diverse groups as prisoners, the visually and hearing impaired, theological students, and Canada’s Armed Forces.
The Society is also involved in translating the Scriptures into Canada’s indigenous languages, a ministry that provides an invaluable service to Canada’s First Nations by helping to preserve their languages and promote literacy.
Indeed, the Society’s 200-year service in Canada dates back to before Canada was Canada, and the Bible that it promotes is an important part of Canadian history. For evidence of this, one need look no farther than the Canadian Coat of Arms, which bares the motto, “Mari usque ad mare” (or “From sea to sea”) and is drawn from Psalm 72:8, which declares: “He (God) shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth”.
Holding Out Hope
The Bible Society continues to await word from Judge Simard and the Citizenship Commission, hoping that the decision will be reconsidered. In a June 15th press release, the Society asked its constituents to “pray for a reversal of this decision”.
Nonetheless, the Society is prepared to abide by the Commission’s decision. “Just as we have complied with your wishes in the past we will continue to do so,” Nesbitt wrote in her letter to Judge Simard, “but we humbly request that you reconsider eliminating our presence from the courts and reverse this recent decision to withdraw from the previous agreement.”
The Canadian Bible Society is not coordinating any petitions or political campaigns regarding the elimination of its presence at citizenship court ceremonies. However, individuals wishing to register their views on the matter may contact Judge Simard or their local Member of Parliament.
Citizenship & Immigration Canada
Ottawa, ON K1A 1L1