On November 9, 2017, the Quebec government passed Bill 144, An Act to Amend the Education Act and other legislative provisions concerning mainly free educational services and compulsory school attendance. The law, which comes into effect next summer, was enacted to tackle the ongoing problem of illegal schools and better regulate homeschooling in the province.

The trigger for this law is a lawsuit brought by Yohanen Lowen and his wife Shira. The two are former members of Tash, a Chasidic religious Jewish community in Boisbriand, Quebec. Lowen left his community over ten years ago and discovered that his education left him completely unprepared for life on the outside.

Though Lowen can speak Yiddish and read Aramaic, he did not know basic arithmetic, nor could he read and write English and French. He and his wife are suing the provincial government for failing in their legal obligation to ensure that they, like all other children in Quebec, receive a proper education.

The case is due to be heard next fall, with the Education Ministry and leading members of the Tash community named in the suit. It should be noted that while Lowen is unemployed and making up for lost time by working for his high school diploma, neither he nor his wife are seeking financial compensation. What they want is a declaratory judgment forcing the government to make people in religious communities teach their children the provincial curriculum.

The issues at play are threefold. First, there is parental discretion and the right of parents to choose the education that will best prepare their children to be functioning members of society.

There is also the issue of government supervision which prevents child abuse and deprivation by setting legal limits on said parental discretion. This why, for example, parents can be punished for starving their kids or beating them into comas.

The third issue is one of discrimination and religious freedom. Quebec is currently a hotbed of intolerance with laws like Bill 62 exacerbating existing prejudices and emboldening the most vile members of society into expressing their hatred openly. There are concerns that because Bill 144 was enacted primarily to tackle illegal Chasidic schools, religious Jewish communities will be the primary targets of the new law.

I had the privilege of speaking to a Modern Orthodox Jewish couple who both work as educators within Jewish schools approved by the province. Like many religious Jews, they keep Kosher, and the Sabbath, and codes of modesty, but unlike members of ultra religious communities like Tash, they do not avoid pop culture and modern technology.

The male half of the couple, a Rabbi, pointed out the difficulty with legislation like this as in Quebec most schools receive public funds, and that to receive it they have to conform to certain standards set by the province. He explained that religious communities like Tash believe they are providing their children with a proper education, but it is an education that will only serve them if they choose to remain within the community. The kids are taught with the assumption that they will never leave, and therefore are given no lessons that would allow them to thrive outside of it.

Yohanen Lowen would have been just fine had he chosen to remain in Tash. His decision to leave is what created problems regarding the education he got.

Both the couple and another Orthodox Jewish teacher I spoke to agree that certain subjects should be taught in all schools, particularly basic science, math, English, and French. They do, however, point out that some curriculum topics interfere with the most literal interpretations of religious texts.

Science, for example, conflicts with creationism. Moral education lessons that teach about other religions which would be perceived as fostering cultural sensitivity for the less religious would be perceived as making kids question their faith by these communities.

Sadly, Bill 144 does not contain anything requiring that a basic curriculum be taught to homeschooled kids, not directly anyway. What the law says is that parents who choose to homeschool must send written notice to the competent school board in their area and submit a “learning project” for approval.

It also requires that parents inform their kids of their rights under the Quebec Education Act, specifically those covered in articles 14 to 17 which cover the rights of children in receiving an education. This includes the right of all children to attend school from the age of 6 to the age of 16.

The new law requires that the government set standards for home schooled children and specify how the local school boards can monitor them. It allows inspectors designated by Education Minister to enter premises suspected of schooling kids illegally and collect information on the children and their parents. The law permits the Education Ministry official to access the health records of children to confirm their identities.

It is the last part of the law that homeschooling advocates like Noemi Berlus, president of Quebec’s homeschooling association, take issue with, feeling that it is a violation of privacy. Education Minister Sébastien Proulx claims that the law is in accordance with Quebec’s privacy rules.

It is the imposition of a standard curriculum that has religious Jews most concerned, as some have pointed out that such a law could force these illegal schools deeper underground by either not registering their children, or sending them to the United States where education is not as closely monitored.

As it stands, Bill 144 is vague, and it is perhaps that vagueness that gives reason to hope, as assessments by inspectors and school board officials could use their discretion to be more culturally sensitive. What must be remembered, however, is that vagueness can also pave the way for more intolerant interpretations.

If Quebec is truly committed to a message of tolerance, the law must be applied to everyone regardless of faith and care must be taken to make sure groups are not targeted unfairly.

The Borough of Outremont recently passed a zoning law banning any new houses of worship from establishing themselves on Laurier and Bernard Avenues. The goal of the law is encourage businesses in the area, particularly around Laurier, Bernard, and Van Horne, and create a public secular space.

The vote was four in favor, one opposed. Mindy Pollack, a member of the borough’s Chasidic community, was the city councilor who voted against the bylaw. She and other members of the borough’s religious Jewish community argue that the new bylaw doesn’t take into account the needs of the community and claim that it isn’t based on any demographic studies.

They demanded that the vote on the bylaw be postponed until demographic studies were conducted with the participation of Outremont’s religious communities. The Borough’s council went and voted on it anyway despite a letter from constitutional lawyer Julius Grey threatening to immediately contest the bylaw before the courts should it pass.

Those against the bylaw argue that it shows a remarkable insensitivity to the religious Jewish community in Outremont. Religious Jews cannot drive automobiles or use public transit on the Sabbath. The ban would allegedly force them to walk 20 to 30 minutes to a house of worship.

By Jeangagnon – Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0
By Jeangagnon – Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Those in favor of the bylaw argue that it will encourage businesses to open and expand in Outremont and provide a safe secular space.

Here are the facts:

The bylaw in question was actually based on a demographic study. But it was a demographic study that’s four years old. The working paper issued by the Borough of Outremont prior to the vote cited a 2011 demographic study of the religious demographics of the area. The Chasidic Community is growing exponentially due to high birth rates, so the numbers in the report would most certainly be out of date.

This same working paper raised concerns that allowing places of worship in certain areas would result in a concentration of them in a given area that would ultimately lead to clashes between religious communities and secular residents and businesses, ultimately deterring the latter. These concerns are not unfounded.

In 2008, for example, a YMCA in Outremont succumbed to pressure from a neighboring Chasidic synagogue that complained because they could see women exercising in outfits that didn’t conform to their sense of modesty. The religious community argued that it was distracting their teenage boys and agreed to foot the $3,500 bill for the YMCA to install frosted windows. Though the Chasidic Community considered the solution a reasonable one, many members of the YMCA begrudged the accommodation and felt that their freedoms were being curtailed for extremist religious sexism.

outremont

Places of Worship in Quebec do not pay municipal taxes. According to An Act Respecting Municipal Taxation, property belonging to a religious institution constituted as a legal person and used primarily for public worship is exempt from municipal property and school taxes. They’re also exempt from business taxes if their activities are part of the exercise of public worship or for charitable or religious goals and would have no monetary gain for the institution. That means that any new place of worship wouldn’t bring any revenue and would only benefit the borough in a purely cultural way.

The new bylaw doesn’t affect existing places of worship, only new ones.

When laws allegedly infringing on religious freedoms go before the courts, religious groups often win. Cases are generally argued on the basis of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of religion and equality before the law.

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled on everything from a Sikh’s obligation to wear a ceremonial dagger and turban, to the Jewish obligation on Sukkot to set up a small outdoor shack (called a Sukkah) for meals, to rants against LGBT people made by people claiming to be good Christians.

In most cases, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the religious groups or individuals, so it’s highly likely a constitutional challenge to the bylaw would succeed. All Outremont’s religious Jewish community would have to argue is that the ban on using any mode of transportation on the Sabbath is associated with their religion and that the petitioners’ belief in this practice is sincere. From there, it’s a matter of arguing that the bylaw interferes with their right to practice their faith.

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It would then be up to the Borough to prove that the bylaw is both important and necessary. The Borough would also have to argue that the bylaw’s limit on freedom of religion is rationally connected to its purpose, encroaches on this freedom as little as possible, and strikes a fair balance between the negative effect of the bylaw and its’ benefits. This test, established by the Supreme Court of Canada in R. v. Oakes, [1986] 1 S.C.R. 103 is used to gauge the constitutionality – as per Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms – of any legislation brought before the courts.

There are no specific religious laws in Judaism regarding the location of a synagogue. However, since most religious Jews don’t believe in using any form of motorized transportation on the Sabbath, it would be pointless to establish one that wasn’t within walking distance of its congregants. Conversely it should be noted that many religious communities on the Island of Montreal have successfully established houses of worship in residential areas and even parks. The Beth Zion Congregation in Cote-Saint-Luc for example was started in the basement of one of its members and was eventually moved to a park in order to allow for potential expansion.

Having said all that is the new bylaw discriminatory?

Yes.

It clearly discriminates not just against Chasidic Jews, but against every religious community in Outremont.

Was the bylaw passed without a proper up-to-date demographic study of the borough?

Yes indeed.

Is it unconstitutional?

That’s up to the courts.

Harper stood up in the house this past week and said with great conviction that the Niqab “was rooted in a culture that is anti-women.’’ This statement was the climax of the ludicrous debate about the Niqab that this country has been engulfed in for the past few weeks. Another chapter in the ongoing saga of the usage of demagogic discourse, fear, xenophobia and the intermingling of three that certain Canadian political parties have promoted for the past few years.

Just to clear the air, because tension has been ripe about this issue especially within our beautiful province of Quebec, the Niqab isn’t a ludicrous debate because of the nature of the debate itself, it’s ludicrous because of the political recuperation it has been a victim of. And the ridiculousness of this whole debate can be summarized in two simple questions: Since when has our prime minister become an ardent defender of women’s rights? Since when has feminism been the motto of the Harper administration.

In an ideal world, this Conservative government would have called an inquiry into the missing and murdered indigenous women the minute they took office. They would have put in place a framework that made sure that economic and social inequality between genders would be addressed in a serious manner and not just hyperbolically. They would have put an emphasis on tackling violence against women in all of its forms, in supporting women’s shelters Canada-wide and organizations that fight for women’s reproductive rights.

FEMINISM

In an ideal world, Harper would have made reference in one of his crown speeches to the plight of single working mothers and created initiatives to make sure no single mother and no child would live in poverty in this country.  In an ideal Canada, Stephen Harper would’ve put an end to the deportations of mothers without status and call for “regularisation” of all mothers without status.

But that’s merely an ‘ideal’ world and unfortunately the Canada of Stephen Harper is the polar opposite of that ideal. We live in a country where more than 1200 aboriginal women are missing and murdered while the Canadian government defacto institutionalized violence against women by stating that it wasn’t a priority. We live in a country where inequality between genders is growing at a rampant pace, where violence against women is on a steady rise even though “this Conservative government has been the most for women in the history of the Confederation.’’

So we must ask ourselves why all of a sudden this call to defend the cause of feminism? Has Harper finally come to realize that deep down inside he’s truly a feminist? Has being the father of a brilliant, beautiful, daughter finally made him come to that conclusion?

Nah… scrap that! This is part of Harper’s new little scheme to build on the heritage of the Charter of Values, a strategy of using the supposed fight against discrimination as a Trojan Horse to promote another form of discrimination.

This strategy has been used by different political parties in past few years. First it was the Front National in France. The most homophobic party in France supposedly did a 180 and “became” the valiant defenders of the rights of the French LGBTQ community against Islamic fundamentalism, while still being against Gay marriage. In Quebec, all of a sudden, a Parti Quebecois that had imposed austerity measures that affected women most became the ardent defender of feminism against, once again, Islamic fundamentalism.

And now, in Ottawa, the Conservative government has used on several occasions the argument of feminism to promote its xenophobic agenda. The most ironic thing is that we are supposedly fighting for women rights and human rights in the Middle East but can’t even uphold them on our own soil.

I won’t get into the whole orientalist and neo-colonialist dimension of this Conservative fear-mongering, although it is an important aspect to consider when dismantling the Conservative jigsaw. I will emphasize the fact that many more women, many more single mothers, many more women in precarious situations, many more working-class women, many more indigenous women, racialized women, more women in general are affected by the austerity and the neo-liberal agenda imposed by this Conservative government than they are by the Niqab.

Economic fundamentalism is as detrimental to the stature and the well-being of women through this country as is religious fundamentalism.

A luta continua.

I went to St. Agnes, a private Catholic kindergarten-8 for elementary school. My parents thought it was better than the questionable inner city public school I would have otherwise attended. Starting at a strict Catholic school gave me an unquenchable lust for breaking the rules.

I was always at the top of my class, but also the one who was ready to challenge the status quo. I remember my first sit in – I was in 4th grade and my gym teacher (who will remain un-named) told the class that all the boys were going to play football and all the girls were going to play on the playground (like proper girls should).

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The Stripteasers, photo by Amanda Glizkowski

I was a tomboy who was bullied due to my size. I always played football with the boys and even had Buffalo Bills season tickets. When I said I was playing, he said an utterly sexist thing: “Go play with the girls, football is for boys only!” I immediately charged over to the other girls and asked them if they would rather play football or swing on the stupid swings like proper ladies were supposed to.

Half of them were with me. We then stood our ground in the middle of the field demanding equal rights. Needless to say, nobody got to play football that day, and I never let anyone tell me I couldn’t do something based on my gender ever again.

My mother wasn’t even mad at me when the angry nun principal called her at home. She was proud that I stood up for what I believed in. I never believed that the God Almighty was a white man on a cloud. I like to think of the real God as Alanis Morrisette in the film Dogma.

In 7th grade, I wrote Horoscopes for the first ever school newspaper. They were all incredibly uplifting and completely un-serious, based on Teen magazines. The priest and sisters saw this as an act of pure heresy! Horoscopes are meant to gain insight on one’s future, the Bible forbids divination and sorcery. Therefore astrology is a sin. The first and last school newspaper published was pulled and confiscated from all students due to its unholy content.

Early on I knew I was an artist but I never felt challenged by the art program (or lack thereof) at my school. My art teacher’s idea of good art was having us copy her work exactly. The closer you were to the original, the better your grade was.

Knowing this was bullshit, I always went in my own direction. I produced my own version of the project, aka REAL ART! The teacher graded me poorly on every project, saying I did not follow school rules. I replied with the bold statement ART HAS NO RULES!

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Zombettes by John Carocci

She was probably jealous of my artistic voice, now I realize that she was just doing her job, teaching a good Catholic curriculum. Thankfully my parents took me to outside art classes at a neighborhood art center and the Albright Knox Art Gallery. There I was able to flourish and learn about how to become a true unbridled creative human. I would never have made it without that artistic nourishment.

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The Stripteasers, photo by Amanda Glizkowski

I have always been intrigued by queer counterculture. When the topic of marriage came up I was the first to speak up for human rights. My religion teacher never had a good response for why our church didn’t accept ALL kinds of love, just saying that same sex couples were wrong. I never accepted that and knew that any God who could hate people who love each other was the one who was wrong.

The music department was a joke. The joke was on them, though, when we sang a re-written version of openly gay George Michael’s “Faith” for the talent show. I wish I remembered more of the lyrics, but I clearly remember “Jesus, I know you’re asking me to pray” instead of “Baby, I know you’re asking me to stay.” The same night some of us also did choreography to a Spice Girls song. The girl power and queer voice was strong in that talent show. Years later, the Spice Girls would become the first band I ever did burlesque to.

For The Stripteasers’ Midnight Mass show I was dressed as the pope and there were also naughty nuns, bad school girls (much worse than Britney Spears) and an innocent alter boy. We simulated sodomy on stage to George Micheal’s “Father Figure” and it was incredible. That number is so blasphemous that people have walked out disgusted every time.

I was part of a Seven Deadly Sins show, but the one that takes the cake as my ticket to eternal damnation is the Oh Unholy a Night! show where, as The Zombettes, we parodied the nativity. I was Broseph and my best friend (who ironically I met at Catholic School) was the Virgin Mary.

She was actually eight months pregnant during the routine! Her bloody tears and inverted cross pasties were memorable. We danced to Marilyn Manson’s Personal Jesus and it was exquisite. Here’s the video:

The Zombettes also performed in the basement of a former Catholic Church now converted to performance space and I was a nun performing an exorcism. I tore pages from a real Bible while my bestie spit fake blood on to the audience, simulated master-bating with a crucifix, and screamed Whore of Christ! She was wearing the actual little plaid skirt that I wore when we met.

God, life is good when you are a non-believer.

Top image by John M. Borsa

* Also, on St-Patrick’s Day, Cat did win the Whiskernia contest she wrote about last week. Congrats!

That’s it, it’s over. Bill Maher, we’re through.

If you’ve ever left a relationship because your partner’s bad traits start making it impossible to appreciate their good qualities, you know what I’m talking about. I don’t care if he’s funny, and spot on when it comes to things like pot and the militarization of police. He’s downright ignorant and bigoted when it comes to anything related to Islam.

I first saw signs of trouble in his film Religulous, when he poked fun at the Christian Right, criticized Muslims in a much harsher way. He pretty much gave Judaism a pass, except for some Orthodox Jews, and was critical of the State of Israel. I chalked it up to his fervent atheism, remembered that he really did a great job with the Christians and forgot about his unfortunate bias for a few years.

Fast forward to a few months ago. While Israel was indiscriminately bombing Gaza, Maher tweeted this:

As if glibly justifying a willful humanitarian catastrophe wasn’t enough bile for 140 characters, he managed to throw in a bit of misogyny too. I decided to watch his next HBO show Real Time, a show which, to be honest, I generally like.

This time, though, I was watching to see if he would apologize or defend the tweet. He didn’t even address it, but he had George Takei as a guest, and I adore George Takei.

I don’t ignore him enough to forget why I was watching, so I decided to be wary of Maher, applaud him when he deserves it, but be ready to call him out when he crosses the line again. I was giving him a third and final chance and he blew it.

Two weeks ago, he closed off his show, as he always does, with New Rules, a comedy bit that is usually quite insightful and funny. This time, though, it was neither.

He started off by making a point that it is easier to poke fun at Christianity than Islam in a Western context. Fine, it is. But Christianity is the dominant religion in the West, and the same point was much funnier when South Park made it.

If he had left it at that, then fine, boring but fine. But instead, he proceeded to make an argument that you can’t call yourself liberal if you don’t speak out against Islam. Here it is, if you want to watch for yourself:

Forget for a moment that no one made this guy the arbiter of what is liberal or progressive, just what does he mean by speaking out against Islam? If he’s referring to objecting to extremism, then fine, religious extremism is a bad thing regardless of the religion, but that’s not what he means.

The following week, the topic came up in the panel section of his show. It had to. The comments had caused such a stink that even Reza Aslan, noted religious scholar, progressive and practicing Muslim appeared on CNN and deflated the argument.

In the discussion on HBO, Maher made it clear that he was, in fact, talking about condemning the religion as a whole. Another panelist, Sam Harris, clarified even more by trying to argue that Islamic extremism wasn’t the exception but rather the rule.

I would have called bullshit and bigotry, but fortunately Ben Affleck did it for me. That’s right, an uber-mainstream, Hollywood A-lister who was on the show primarily to plug a movie called the host a racist. Give it a watch:

To paraphrase Michael Moore, one of Maher’s celebrity leftist friends: “When progressive scholars and Batman are against you, Mr. Maher, you just might be a bigot.” Moreover, you’re probably not a liberal at all.

What’s so liberal about telling people what they can and can’t believe? As an agnostic who also thinks, I find Maher’s comments offensive, and worse, ignorant.

When supposed progressive allies start sounding like the radical right they claim to despise, it’s time to move on.

No, I don’t want people to boycott HBO; I need my John Oliver and Game of Thrones as much as you. I also don’t think guests should refuse to appear on Real Time, as long as they make sure to call Maher out when needed, just like Affleck did.

I do think it’s time the progressive left realizes that a bigot is a bigot. Maher and his ilk aren’t allies, despite making good points from time to time.

Bill Maher, we’re done!

It’s trickling down. Snow falling from the condensed steam of downtown high rises. It begins to fall gently and you barely even notice it. But when that perfect storm hits, those snowflakes will blind you. Winter is coming.

Regular Canadians, us, our friends and families, who watch tv, listen to the radio and live normal lives are being manipulated by career tricksters and their corporate puppeteers. In English Canada, it’s Brian Lilley and Michael Coren, in Quebec it is Michel Hebert and PQ minister Benard Drainville, all so called journalistsBrian, Michael and Michel work directly for one of richest people in Quebec and Canada, Pierre Peladeau.

Pierre knows whats up. He’s watching his billionaire buddies in Europe. They’re ripping their countries apart, privatizing everything, destroying pensions and throwing people on the street. He’s got his eyes on Hydro Quebec, as the CLSCs are closed down, perhaps private health care too. They’re softening the blows with distractions. Cue the Charters. Attacking minorities becomes a pastime in Europe and slowly, in Canada.

Those few allowed to speak against it publicly don’t make sense. Liberals talk about loving the “others.” They spend their precious words whining about political correctness. The words fly over our head. Racism sells easier than political correctness. Reasonable accommodation, the ultimate liberal mental masturbation, hides a deep austerity. Are we so impoverished that we cannot provide for those whose spirituality calls for the covering of hair or not touching others who are not their spouse? We all work in the same places, play in the same parks, love the same and laugh the same. We don’t need to embrace the language of difference. Why can’t we accommodate everyone? Why are we so impoverished? Who stole our money?

On the banks of the Ottawa River, in the dirt of industrial Montreal, on the piers of Newfoundland, in the mountains of British Columbia, we were played against each other. Quebecers fresh from the farm and Irishmen fresh from the famine fought to the bottom for pennies in factories and forests. Immigrants from Eastern Asia met violence from angry Englishmen in Vancouver over starvation wages.

Historical memory is short. There was a time when Catholics, in many countries, were not allowed to have jobs in the government and were oppressed mercilessly. Now their descendants want to share their forgotten experiences with Muslims, Sikhs and Jews.

If there has been one thing consistent across time and space, it is that good, regular people, unfiltered by the poetic trickery of the elite and the pain of poverty, have always shared a bond. Humans have a natural solidarity and, I believe, want to love one another. It is the rich and powerful that benefit from dividing us.

Top hat wearing English blokes, not so far removed from Brian Lilley, used to write poems and stories about how much they hated those poor people working in factories and living in slums. Even today, think about how big television stations now portray trailer parks and ghettos in popular culture. They call us fat. They call us stupid. They want us to hate ourselves. And then, as if stealing from the poor of their own country wasn’t enough, these top hat wearing, cigar smoking monopoly men wanted the world. They sold lies about Native Americans, Indians, Chinese people and African people so they could send poor white folks to murder them, steal from them, and die.

The bodies of the poor are the weapons of the rich. And not much has changed. They still use us. Their ranks have swelled. They look and sound more like us. They’ve removed their hats, but they hold their reigns tightly and they’re riding us into each other with the force of a nation.

The real targets of the Charter of Quebec Values are the CAQ, Quebec Solidaire and the NDP. Muslims, Sikhs, Jews and Orthodox Christians are just innocent victims caught in political crossfire.

charter of quebec values protestFor decades, Quebec politics split into two camps. Federalists and most anglos voted Liberal provincially and either Liberal or Conservative federally. Soverigntists voted PQ and Bloc.

Progressive voters, especially progressive anglos, didn’t have much choice at all. With the PQ leaning increasingly to the right on social and economic issues, even progressive soverigntists had to hold their noses when voting PQ.

I hate to generalize, but in this case I have to. The PQ has always had two political bases: left-leaning secular soverigntists living predominately in urban areas and ultra-nationalist Catholics in the suburbs and countryside who veer right politically, sometimes to the point if xenophobia.

The nationalist base also flirted with homophobia when openly gay Andre Boisclair was leader. The PQ fell to third place for the first time ever as nationalist right wing voters found refuge in the ADQ, who only had to not rule out the idea of a separate Quebec.

The current incarnation of the ADQ, the Coalition de l’Avenir du Quebec, are separatist at the core but promise not to hold a referendum right away. This allows them to pick up right wing anglos fed up with the Liberals but also take hard right nationalist votes away from the PQ.

Meanwhile, upstart leftist sovereignist parties like QS and Option Nationale threaten to take soft separatist votes. Throw in some progressive federalist voters and lefties who care more about social policy than which flag is flown and the PQ stands to lose seats in their urban enclaves.

In the last federal election, progressive soverigntists who realized Ottawa was the wrong place to fight for independence banded together with progressive federalists and decimated the Bloc, taking a bunch of Liberals down too. The Orange Wave that saw the NDP take most of the seats in Quebec was part love affair with Jack Layton and part rejection of the status quo of Quebec politics.

charter sign

It’s that status quo that the PQ desperately needs to reestablish both provincially and federally. Enter the Charter, with it’s rules against public sector employees wearing “ostentatious” religious attire.

Small crosses are okay as are Star of David and Muslim Crescent trinkets which have no religious meaning whatsoever. Burqas, niquabs, turbans, yarmulkes, kippahs and Orthodox Christian crosses (generally larger than the Catholic ones) aren’t.

The target audience is clearly the right-wing nationalist side of the PQ’s base, but Marois and company probably figure that the reasonable accommodations crowd will go for a ban on turbans and burquas with little prodding. So the marketing push is focused instead on secular leftists, talking about women’s rights and the neutrality of the state.

Arguing that a law which targets specific groups is neutral is a stretch at best, explaining how banning a Jewish man from wearing a kippah or a Sikh from wearing a turban has anything to with women’s rights, meanwhile, is downright impossible. But it doesn’t matter. This strategy gives progressive PQ supporters enough political cover to defend their party without having to admit they support far-right social conditioning.

They’ll also be able to criticize QS, a feminist party, who opposed the charter on principle. Expect a repeat of the baseless accusations that surfaced before the last election, claiming that QS is just a puppet of the NDP.

charter of quebec values ad

Thomas Mulcair opposes the Charter, as do Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper. In fact, the only federal party supporting it is the Bloc. No surprise they booted Maria Mourani for speaking out against it (and in the process, kicked out a fifth of their caucus and their only female MP and their only representation from the island of Montreal).

The CAQ thinks the Charter goes too far, but does support it when it comes to government employees in a position of power. Their position, squarely seated on top of the fence, makes sense: the Charter plays to right wingers who they covet but it’s also bad for business, their other key demographic.

The Quebec Liberals, predictably, are opposed to the Charter outright. The PQ’s traditional opponent in stark opposition, just like old times.

The PQ’s endgame is not separation, it hasn’t been for years. The threat or promise of it is just another tool to achieve their real goal: bringing back those good ole days when it was them and the Bloc versus the Quebec Liberals and the rest of Canada.

Now Marois can claim that only the PQ and the Bloc speak for Quebec and its values. All she had to do was redefine the values of half her base as those of Quebec.

It doesn’t matter how many people are discriminated against and leave Quebec. It doesn’t matter how many people are accosted in public for no good reason. The only thing that’s actually valuable to her and her party is for Quebec politics to return to the status quo.

 

Yesterday, Le Journal de Montreal revealed that Pauline Marois’ Parti Québécois government allegedly plans to outlaw religious clothing, symbols and jewelry in all Quebec public spaces later this fall. The unconfirmed proposal would be inserted into the Québécois Charter of Quebec Values and ban civil servants from wearing hijabs, burkas, turbans, kippas, crucifixes and other religious attire. It would also be imposed in courts, police stations, hospitals, government offices and even publicly funded institutions such as daycare.

pauline marois pointing

The rules would not apply to the crucifix hanging in Quebec’s National Assembly as it represents an “icon of Quebec history.” However, any “ostentatious crucifix” displayed around the necks of public servants would not be allowed.

Unlike the Quebec Soccer Federation’s failed attempt to pass a turban ban in July, there is no citation of religious clothing endangering oneself or others. Indeed, a dress code deemed appropriate for Franco-Canadian tastes by the PQ would appear draconian compared to the rest of Canada where religious accommodation has empowered Sikhs to wear turbans, ceremonial daggers in the RCMP and Muslim teachers to wear hijabs in classrooms.

Quebec’s minorities, who already find employment and career advancement hard enough as it is, are outraged. Some are even comparing Marois to Vladimir Putin for his restriction on the LGBT community. Meanwhile, some Jewish-Quebecers who were witness to the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 Nazi Germany have alluded to parallels between them and these restrictions.

The ban would target, discourage and exclude certain members of society from participating in Quebec public life. In essence, it would create a set of second-class citizens.

Such a ban would send a chilling message to those that do not fit a mold of Quebec identity. Minorities must conceal their personal identity, lifestyle and beliefs.

Quebec should look to its elder brother, France, for lessons in excessive secularism. France’s ban of religious iconography disenfranchised and created sous-bois ghettos. This has incited employment discrimination, police racial profiling, arbitrary stop-and-frisks and bloody riots in Paris.

turban soccer

If passed, the PQ proposal would incite not only racism and religious intolerance but also reinforce colonialism. For example, Aboriginal spiritual feathers invoke the spirits of ancestors and the earth, they are symbols of respect of their heritage and nature. Chinese jade pendants channel Feng Shui, providing healing and purification. While neither is religious in the traditional sense, both celebrate cultural veneration and could fall under this ban.

What about products with religious slogans and retailer philosophy, like Lululemon’s  yogi philosophy? Would they fall under the ban as well?

It’s unlikely this plan would pass the Charter test at the Supreme Court of Canada, so it may be a stillborn proposal. One possible rationale for such a stunt is that it may distract from the PQ government’s economic mismanagement while bolstering support from their base.

It is likely Marois hopes this proposal will rally sovereigntist hardliners (both secular and Christian) for the next provincial election with a public face portraying an ideal “pure laine” Quebec society, rather than its multicultural/lingual reality.

This nationalist myth ultimately breaks down when cracks develop in the facade until it collapses.

Roy Ascott writes in Gesantdantenwerk “One can no longer be at the window, looking in on a scene composed by another, one is instead invited to enter the doorway into a world where interaction is all.” The relationship between the viewer and the art object has always caused debate, which can be traced back to religious art and its place within the church, as art pieces were seen as a window to the vision of God and having holy elements, viewers were often prohibited from interacting with them by touching or closely inspect them.

ArrayThe artwork was meant to produce a humbling effect on the audience from afar, which aimed to place them in awe of some divinity. These notions were shared by all monotheistic religions, be it Judaism, Christianity or even Islam where the decorated shrines of “Imams” were protected by gold cages and the pilgrims were refrained from touching the artwork.

Seeing seems to be the only interaction deemed suitable for religious artworks, and this was further implemented by the restrictions of ownership and private property laws which are still in place today. As Erkki Huhtamo writes: “touching with one’s eyes only, was a manifestation of an ideological ‘mechanism’ where the formation of aesthetic experience was associated with ‘stepping back’ – maintaining physical distance from the artwork.” As he rightly points out the condition of art as valuable commodity, and the romantic notions of artist as a mad genius contributed to the limitations being imposed on interactivity with an artwork.

However, with the emergence of the avant-garde and a fresh take on presentation of art pieces by artists like Duchamp and the Surrealists in the 20th century, the path toward interactivity and the idea of “touch” becoming essential to works of contemporary artists was laid. Erkki Huhtamo continues in his essay concerning new media and idea of “Touch”: “The idea of interactive art is intimately linked with touching. As it is usually understood, an interactive artwork is something that needs to be actuated by a ‘users’.” He then proceeds to explain that the notion of “touch” is nor restricted to the physical act carried out by hands or other parts of the body, and can include vision and motion senses and even sound.

UVA2He goes on to say: “In a technological culture, forms of touch have been instrumentalized into coded relationships between humans and machines.” Interactivity of new media artists, especially light artists like UVA consists of interaction between man and technology, be they machines, computers or electric circuits. As technology and science based artwork became part of the art scene, interactivity became much more mutual on both the artist and the viewer, and in some cases the artist becomes unimportant as the interaction takes place between the viewer and the artwork itself.

By showcasing the Array piece in Japan, the UVA were tapping into a long ancient tradition of a country very familiar with the concept of Interactivity and Immersion.  Japanese culture has a long artistic history and they view their “bijutsu” (Meaning ‘Visual Fine Arts’ a term introduced in late nineteenth century as Japan opened relationship doors and trading with the west) as having roots in traditional concepts of immersing in art which they value highly. Art played an integral role in Japanese life; and instead of being something revered as special, it was used in everyday life and surrounding with ordinary use. The tradition of painting pictures goes back throughout Japanese history, however it was seen as harmonizing the living and religious environment by hiring artists to paint their work on screens and sliding doors. Artwork could be found on most household items like tableware, chests and trunks. Elegant designs and complicated embroidery could be found on clothes and accessories.

Oliver Grau writes: “Immersion is produced works of art and image apparatus converge, or when the message and the medium form an almost inseparable unit, so that the medium becomes invisible.” And certainly with artworks like Array and Volume, the audience lose themselves in the experience, unaware of the medium or the artwork. Most contemporary audience fail to recognise such work as art and concentrate on working out a way to interact with the piece in their own individual way.

They are immersed in an environment accompanied by changing lights and sounds which they control by their movement and distance. It can be described as another alternative existence. Oliver Grau writes: “The most ambitious project intends to appeal not only to the eyes but to all other senses so that the impression arises of being completely in an artificial world,” and whereas Grau is referring to virtual reality, one can pursue the same notion in explaining the light installations of UVA with a difference which is: whereas in virtual reality one is aware of being immersed in an artificial world, in connection with light installations in question one is faced with real environments which can produce a sublime and lasting effect when immersion takes place.

 

So, it’s official, Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio is now Pope Francis. You probably already know this just as you probably already know he likes to ride the bus, is virulently opposed to same-sex marriage and may have been involved in a few kidnappings back in the day.

Analysis of just what this selection of pontiff means, sordid details from his past and even a few humourous memes (decent, but nowhere near as good as all the Palpatine ones that came with the previous pontificate) spread as quickly yesterday as the news of his election itself. Before the white smoke had cleared the sky around the Vatican chimney, we were starting to get a picture of who this new pope was and what kind of pope he may be.

So, is this a change in the right direction or are the world’s catholics and the rest who pay attention to the Holy See in for more of what they got from Benedict XVI? Well, let’s have a look…

The Good

bergoglio subwayAlways good to start positive. Let’s see, he likes to ride the bus and live in a simple apartment. Yes, up until now, he’s forgone free limo rides and mansions offered to him in favour of slumming it with the rest of us. Good, but I have a feeling that will change. I doubt Vatican security will let him shun the pope-mobile, and it’s pretty much established that he won’t be living in an apartment from now on.

He’s also known to fight for the poor. He’s from the Jesuit order, known for speaking up for social justice and, as many have pointed out, choosing a name to evoke St-Francis Assisi emphasizes his connection with the poor. He’s also from Latin America, which shows the Church is willing to move away from its Europeans only image at the very top.

Now to compare. Benedict had a keen interest in the environment and did criticize economic policies that hurt the poor. So that’s two good points to one in favour of the previous pontiff, but then if you factor in that Ratzinger was German, definitely a part of the Europe club, they come out even.

The Bad

argentina gay rights

While the last pope clearly wasn’t a champion of gay rights or women in the clergy, his regressive attitude came out mainly in the form of doctrinal announcements. The new guy, on the other hand, made some pretty nasty comments that are hard to top on the cringe-worthy scale.

While actively fighting against Argentina’s efforts to legalize same-sex marriage (which passed, by the way), Cardinal Bergoglio said:

“Let’s not be naive, we’re not talking about a simple political battle; (marriage equality) is a destructive pretension against the plan of God. We are not talking about a mere bill, but rather a machination of the Father of Lies that seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”

He also went on to call gay parents adopting children a “form of discrimination against children.” I couldn’t find any statement by him on child sex abuse by the clergy, let alone him labelling it as a form of discrimination against children.

I also couldn’t find a statement by him about women or contraception. Even though his predecessor said many things on these subjects, the sheer virulence of Bergoglio’s comments on homosexuality ties him, in my book, with Ratzinger on the anti-progressive scale.

The Ugly

pope dictator
Pope Francis (left) and Argentinian dictator Jorge Rafael Videla

And I mean ugly. Turns out that during Argentina’s “dirty wars ” (a period in the late 70s and early 80s where the country was controlled by US-backed dictators) this champion of the poor may have tried to stop two Jesuit priests under his direction who believed in liberation theology from helping the poor in Buenos Ares. When they refused, he stopped protecting them, effectively handing them over to the death squads who kidnapped and tortured them, according to one of the priests who told the Associated Press.

In all fairness, he was also instrumental in their release a few months later. This was supposedly possible because he was close with the military dictatorship.

Until yesterday, a report in the Guardian had Argentinian journalist Horacio Verbitsky claiming that Bergoglio helped hid some of the regime’s political prisoners from human rights observers on his island home with Bergoglio countering that he was hiding them from the regime, despite his Jesuit order publicly endorsing the dictatorship. Verbitsky has since stated that the new pope was not personally concealing the prisoners, though the church was. The original passage is still quoted in Business Insider.

Years later, the Argentinian church apologized for its lack of action during those brutal years while Bergoglio insisted he didn’t know anything about the regime taking babies  from people they killed. A letter from a colonel asking for help says otherwise.

So back to the comparison. Ratzinger was a Hitler Youth, but I’d argue that Bergoglio’s sketchy past was worse, much worse. This is for one key reason : Ratzinger was basically a kid when he was part of the HJ whereas Bergoglio was an adult and a member of the church with power and prominence when he allegedly turned a blind eye to and outright helped a brutal regime.

It’s now clear that the new pope is, at best, the same as the old pope, but if these allegations of what he did during the dirty wars are true, I’d say he’s worse.

Did Pope Benedict quit because an undisclosed nation has filed an arrest warrant for him? Some people think so.

As of now, it’s only sites that have a declared issue with the Catholic Church that are reporting that nugget. Meanwhile, Reuters admits that by remaining in the Vatican (something that would not be possible as a pope who travels the world) he is immune to prosecution, without mentioning if any prosecution was imminent.

When something happens that hasn’t happened in over 700 years, it’s only natural that people will speculate. When the official reason given doesn’t ring true, those theories will have more traction.

A scandal-ridden pope leaving for health reasons sounds about as believable as a politician caught with an intern stepping down to spend more time with their family. So do we have traction?

Well, that depends on who you talk to.  Some people will believe the official story, namely devout Catholics and the mainstream media, others will profess that there is something we’re not being told.

For some, the supreme pontiff is infallible and must be telling the truth. For others, a coverup is inevitable and can be the only explanation.

Both groups hold an unwavering devotion to their beliefs. A religious devotion.

If we’re going with a belief that cannot be proven or disproven, then we can really have fun with this one. I could say that the pope quit because the aliens were about to reveal his secret love affair with Queen Elizabeth (speaking of the Queen and conspiracies, anything sounds believable when spoken with a British accent, trust me, just listen).

Think I’m crazy? Some think that the idea that a man speaks directly for God because he was elected by a small group behind closed doors is also nuts.

pope palpatine eight yearsLet’s try another one. He’s online now, right? Know what else is online? Memes juxtaposing his image with that of the Emperor from Star Wars. Maybe it was just too much for him (side note: yeah, he looks like Palpatine, but so does Ian McDiarmid and he’s not evil, just a good actor).

Or maybe he just wants to know if the cross on Mount Royal turns purple if a pope resigns or just when one dies. Honestly, I want to know this, too, there’s supposedly a committee looking into this.

I hope they decide soon and not only because people paid by tax dollars should really make up their minds about what colour to make a bunch of LED lights for a few weeks and start doing more important work. I want a decision because I care more about what I have to look at when I ride the 80 bus than I do about what prompted an old man in Rome to quit his job.

I also care more about people, children, suffering sexual abuse by priests and the church sweeping it under the rug.

I care more about a pope re-affirming that homosexuality is a sin and that the priesthood is a boys-only club when a growing number of Catholics are actually quite progressive people.

I care more about teachings against condoms when Catholicism is spreading in Africa about as quickly as HIV.

Want to know the real reason the pope resigned? Let’s solve the other problems first, then we can focus on trivial gossip.

If only the world would heed my advice and keep their religion at home, what a place this could be. Alas not only do we seem destined to bicker about the one true faith to the end of time, some of us continually feel the need to criticize and insult each other over it as well.

Hard times usually bring out the crazy in people, whether it’s economic hardship in the United States or political adversity in the Middle East (or vice versa). Religious radicals tend to thrive in these environments, but as this past week has shown, the misapplication of the freedom of speech is all that is required to demonstrate the ugliness of our societies.

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula (AKA Sam Bacile), A Coptic Christian immigrant from Egypt posing as a Jewish real-estate mogul from Israel created a trailer for a film called “Innocence of Muslims”. The film was designed to enrage the Muslim community with the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed as a womanizer, a homosexual and a child abuser.

On Sept. 8, a two minute clip of the trailer was aired on Egyptian television and it resulted in a few hundred radical Muslims revolting at American Embassies in Egypt and Libya on Sept. 11. In Egypt, the American flag at the embassy was replaced by an Islamic one, but in Libya the protest appeared to be used as cover for an assault on the American embassy which saw the death of their ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.

If this amateur anti-Muslim film were written and directed in Canada, there is a good chance Nakoula would be in jail or facing heavy fines thanks to our laws against hate speech. In the United States however there are no such laws, people are free to say whatever they want, whenever they want and nobody would have it any other way—it’s their first amendment right.

We can debate all we want on hate speech laws or unfettered free speech, but there is no denying that any type of freedom requires responsibility in order for freedom to flourish. Those who made this film with the sole intention of angering an entire faith clearly failed in this regard. Not only did they anger an insignificant portion of the 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, but they managed to put a black eye on one of America’s most sacred rights.

I read a sign being carried by one of the protesters the other day and it summed up the situation better than I ever could, it read “You have the freedom of speech; we now have the freedom to act”. People seem to forget these “Arab Spring” countries recently went through a huge political shift.

Egyptians, Libyans and others are still not accustom to the freedoms we enjoy, take for granted or in this case abuse. Many of these Muslims can’t yet understand that an American man’s actions aren’t sanctioned by the American Government and it leads to further anti-American sentiment.

I’m not shelling out excuses for the actions of the protesters; violence is wrong regardless of the circumstances. Extremists of all stripes have a tendency to overreact when it comes to their religion, especially Muslims when you mock their prophet, let alone depict him in any way.

One thing I’ve noticed though, no matter how angry Muslims get, they never turn to the same tactics. It’s rare to see a Muslim burn a crucifix or hang an effigy of Jesus, they just prefer to burn flags.

Mr. Nakoula will likely go unpunished for his irresponsible actions. Whether you agree or not will depend on your religion, nationality or views on civil rights. Whether these events occur again will hinge on the ability of radical religious leaders on all sides to start preaching coexistence rather than hate and prejudice.

After all, Christians, Muslims and Jews all believe in the same god, there is no rational reason why they can’t all get along. Then again, who ever said religion was rational?

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Earlier this week Ansar Dine and MNLA, a Tuareg sect who are separatists, attacked some of Timbuktu’s oldest mosques and heritage buildings armed with pickaxes whilst shouting “Allah O Akbar” which means “God is Great” in Arabic.

The group have links to Al-Qaida and see the Mosques and Shrines to the Sufi saints as against Sharia Law, and so they say it is their duty to destroy them, presumably to advance their own radical, extremist take on the religion.

In Islam there are strict prohibitions when it comes to depictions of human and animal figures in holy places and in art itself; so most mosques are decorated with geometric and arabesque shapes, which have come to define Islamic Art in western conscious. However, as with any religion, many have interpreted the Quran in different ways and you see these figures appear in different regions.

The enforcement of Islamic law and interpretation of the Quran by different nationalities have roots in the ancient cultures that predate the Arab invasions of around 630 AD, and this is why every Muslim country has its own identity and way of dealing with the religion.

The Arab leaders and appointed heads of state were very adaptable when it came to learning and taking up the customs of the ancient cultures in their occupied countries, despite the popular belief that they ruled by the sword.

There is no doubt that the invading armies had captured their territory with force, killing anyone who stood in their way, and they did indeed burn down many buildings, books and artefacts; however once in power they soon realized that to govern they could not keep up the scare tactics, otherwise they would have had much resistance from the public.

Through the surviving evidence from around the world one can clearly see that the newly appointed Islamist leaders changed much of their approach when in power. There are mosques and palaces with paintings and structures that clearly go against the modern teachings of the Quran. There are bathhouses with Roman inspired architecture and artwork depicting people enjoying wine and pleasures of the flesh during the Arab rule.

It is only as time went on and pressures from the wars started to take their toll that a stricter and extremer Islam started to become popular amongst the leading figures, and the fear once again started to be the tool they used to keep people in check.

Religious identity is not the same as cultural identity. Certainly religion is not a culture. Art from different so called Islamic countries differ tremendously, which I would agree might seem subtle to western eyes. One would have to travel to different regions of the Middle East and North Africa to discover these differences, because what we see in the museums and galleries are shaped by our perceived notion that Islamic art has a unifying theme and concept, otherwise we cannot assign them a wing or a space just to seem enlightened.

In backlash to us romanticizing art from those regions as Islamic and labelling them all with a same cultural identity, the hardliners are abusing their new found fear mongering methods to destroy what is left of those ancient cultures that once existed in the region, and terrorizing the people.

The Taliban destroyed the priceless Buddha sculptures in Afghanistan, the Mullahs are destroying Persian monuments, Ansar Dine and MNLA are destroying Timbuktu’s heritage buildings; what is next, the Muslim Brotherhood destroying the Pyramids?

It is only when we stop trying to be politically correct; it is only when we stop glamorizing religion ideologies as sacred; it is only when we stop defining people by their beliefs in God that we can escape the shackles of prejudice and start looking realistically at the problems we face from the fundamentalists.

Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, and yes one must not live in the past, one must be innovative and progressive in vision to survive. If we carry on ignoring the issue of religious radicalism in any form, be it Judaism, Christianity or Islam, and pass it off as cultural differences we will have a bleak future to look forward to.

spiritual awakening

spiritual awakening

This past Sunday, I awoke too early for my taste. Rain was falling, the sky had a look in its eye that warned it would go on for days, and I had heard there were snowflakes in the city despite the green mist of buds spraying the trees, and the bravest most daredevil flowers proudly waving. What perfect weather for Spring.

Today holds added significance: I’m attending the baptism of my friend’s munchkin. My dearest girlfriend, forevermore known as Mabel, Mother of the Munch, will be standing up with my oldest and dearest friend, her boyfriend, taking their first public step as a family. My love is on my arm, handsome and of expansive heart; as we cross water coming into the city, the day is ripe for ritual.

As I’ve said before, rituals only have as much meaning and power as we ascribe to them. So what does this baptism really mean? Different things to all involved: for mom Mabel, it’s a meaningless ritual, though a benign one. It’s a chance to celebrate her son, but really it’s a pacifier for some of her family; for those people, the child (old enough to be offended if you call him a baby), is being rescued from the jaws of eventual and eternal damnation. To me it’s confirmation of new family ties, joined forces and futures. And I’ve been promised an after-party. And what’s a Lutheran, anyway?

I dig religion; different services and scriptures and comparative mythology get me all geeky (and sometimes even reverent), so I was pretty eager to see what was going on behind the doors of this church and steeple.

Personally, I’m born Jewish, with a Roman Catholic father more likely to quote Heinlein than the bible; my bindi is heartfelt, as our my cards and crystals (my Bubby taught me her old world ways). My boyfriend, proudly Jewish as long as I’ve known him, is getting over a lifelong case of atheism. Step-dad of the Little Dude identifies as “sort of christian”, and Mabel is a Pagan, Buddhist, scientist (please read that correctly: she believes in Einstein, not Tom Cruise). Together, we are the most elaborate straight line walking into the church. While I do hate to generalize, right off the bat these folks do not appear to be the laughing kind. I have the sudden sinking feeling that I’m trapped, and there’s no punchline out until somebody repents.

While I had been warned that there would be no soulful singing, nor any dervish whirling passion, in houses of worship – everywhere, in fact – I prefer hearts devoted in love, rather than obedient in fear. It seems that in some circles, vengeful gods are still very “in” this season, though from the looks of the pews, scary only makes for lineups at movies and roller coasters.

Regardless, I was still eager. Maybe I’d even take my first communion; it would be an auspicious day to do so. I almost took it once at a United service, but I was much younger, and felt I might regret it in hindsight. I’m sure now that I wouldn’t have in the slightest; it remains my favorite service.

Reading along in the hymnal, I knew the day wasn’t heading in that direction. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it: too much fear, too much sin, too much saving. I say this as someone who’s attended a Catholic funeral. Part of the baptism itself includes promising that the child be raised with fear of god. I almost crossed myself against that, and I’m only superstitious in the right light.

eagle-attack
Maybe the eagle just wants a hug?

I admit that my mind closed a little when I noted the eagle on the pulpit, fierce and gold. Racing through every bible story I know and every half plausible excuse I can find (other than, you know, Nazis), I come up with “Maybe eagles eat snakes and so they’d win over evil in a game of cosmic Rock/Paper/Scissors”? Still, if there isn’t a biblical excuse, I’m sure a palatable myth-addendum has been put into place somewhere to make it legit? Either way, it wasn’t in the handout they gave me on my way in.

Disappointed but determined, I stared off into the painted clouds in the painted sky behind the altar, letting the songs fade into gibberish, when the organist began Ode To Joy. They were still singing, and now I was humming fervently, glad to have found a point I could go along with. I’m certain that this is the closest moment I will have of resonance within these walls. Silver Linings “R” Us. Amen.

Flowers, vines, and piles of leaves are carved into the ceiling, piled and protruding, and as I hang onto those bits, I get to thinking about the Green Man, his various faces carved across the globe. I heard once that Pagan builders embedded them in Christian churches so while they weren’t digging the details, they could pray there, out of the elements, to their own gods, never converting their hearts.

I smiled to the leaves, signs of life going right, and thanked the flowers, passing vessals of eternal beauty, and was sure that in the grand infinite tapestry, all was as it ought be, and these people who wished that peace be with me (and I with them), their intentions were as good as my own, even if their translation grated on me like nails on blackboards accompanying off-key trumpets. And somewhere in between here and eternity, details like that fade beyond memory, beyond everything, into nothing, and all that’s left is the space where a song was. May that song always be your Ode to Joy.

Nearly a week later, my thoughts still go out to the kid in front of me who was fussing, and playing (read: getting in trouble) the whole time, then only spoke up when the congregation was asked if they accepted Jesus, and this scamp, full confidence but no sass, quietly said “No”. He was summarily shushed by his adults. Good on ya kid, say what you feel. Go with God, and strength be with you; I doubt it’ll be an easy go.

Liberals always seem to squirm a little bit when questions of religious freedom come into conflict with other rights that they cherish (i.e. gender equality), the way they did last week when the British Colombia Supreme Court handed down its epic reference on the legality of polygamy in Canada. I suppose the situation is bound to cause some cognitive dissonance in those of us who generally support multiculturalism and the bedrock civil and political rights that, for the most part, are reflected in our Charter of rights and freedoms.

Certainly freedom of religion is not a right that should be curbed by the state lightly. Yet, as is the case with so many monumental legal battles, the courts are almost always called upon to engage in a balancing of different competing rights. And, as is the case more often than not, the judges, at least where the Charter is concerned, seem to have gotten it right this time.

First of all, let’s examine the key facts of the reference. The provincial government of British Columbia basically posed the following question to the court: Is section 293 of the criminal code, which prohibits polygamy, compatible with article 2(a), which provides for freedom of religion under the Charter?

Allow me to cut to the chase here: Yes. However, the reasons elaborated by the court deserve a slightly more profound analysis, and involve one of the most extensive studies ever undertaken in a court of law on the subject of marriage.

Children playing in the Polygamist Mormon community of Bountiful, BC

At issue here was the practice of a rather obscure little Mormon sect of Bountiful nestled in the heart of interior BC. They call themselves The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and they are as God fearing and backward as their name would suggest.

For those who might be tempted to sympathize with this group, may I point out the cynicism with which they and other religious organizations often use such human rights cases. By this I mean, does anyone actually believe, even for a second, that these people who conveniently hide behind the protection given them by modern, secular, liberal and democratic laws, actually subscribe to any of them in their daily lives?Or do they respect only one law in their personal lives: God’s? Not to mention, they boycotted the whole proceedings and thus the court was forced to appoint an Amicus Curia (friend of the court) to speak on their behalf.

No matter, Judge Bauman had a field day in his incredibly detailed opinion. According to the judge, this is the first time in Canada’s history that a trial court, as opposed to an appellate court, was able to hear a reference case. Apparently this unusual preference by the government was on account of its desire to submit evidence (as a rule, appellate courts do not allow any new evidence to be heard in court) in the case.

What kind of evidence, you ask? The judge began with examining the origins of monogamy in western civilization, all the way back to the olden times of Plato and Julius Caesar, and finished with a history of polygamy in Canada, all the way up to modern times. Little wonder this opinion required 335 pages!

But much of this was contextual and the final opinion rendered was largely based on the notion of harm and how, in this instance, it could effectively limit a person’s freedom of religion under the Charter. The judge employed the reasonableness test in article one and deemed that it saved the legal measures in the criminal code outlawing polygamy.

Though the provision offends the right to practice ones religion under the Charter, such a restriction was, in the language of article 1, “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society,” because of “Parliament’s reasoned apprehension of harm arising out of the practice of polygamy. This includes harm to women, to children, to society and to the institution of monogamous marriage.” These well-documented harms include, poverty, neglect and physical and emotional abuse suffered by both women and children who find themselves trapped in such families.

This case is based on sound reasoning, exhaustive empirical research and all manner of expert witnesses who testified to the court. I encourage anyone who is looking for an opinion on how modern complex liberal democracies should strike the correct balance between fundamental human rights and the common good of society, to at least browse the opinion.

Hats off to Judge Bauman on this legal tour de force!!!

* Images: timeslive.co.za, mercatornet.com, canada.com

It is becoming increasingly difficult not feel a fair amount of pity for American Christians. Having the fortune of spending several weeks in the Carolinas with my family, perhaps the most striking thing to a visitor traveling through “God’s Country” is the sheer number of churches.

In one town, which was little more than a single extended road, I counted thirteen. In another, eight, including four on opposing corners from one another (I should also note that the overwhelming majority of these were Baptist or variants thereof).

It should go without saying then that despite advances made by secularism over the last few decades, large numbers of Americans remain strong in their religious roots. It is a belief system that runs so deep in the country that it has become all but unthinkable for a non-believer to make a serious push for public office.

As someone who is both a committed secularist and not particularly sympathetic to the evangelical persecution complex, I find it very odd to admit that I am beginning to feel sorry for them.

It is undeniable that the religious right has become a powerful political machine. The furor and conviction of its members is only rivalled by the depths of their pocketbooks and it is a fact that hasn’t been lost on either the Democrat or Republican leadership.

The problem, however, is that it is becoming increasingly more apparent that the honest believers in America have fallen victim to a great number of proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing, or in several cases outright crackpots. It has gone past the point of mere populism and vote pandering and has devolved into something a great deal more cruel and manipulative.

How else would you describe Governor Perry’s repeated and shameless “public days of prayer” in light of his two hundred and thirty four executions? It seems that for whatever problem ails the Lonestar State, prayer is the answer, something undermined all the more by Perry’s seeming ambivalence as to whether or not his prayers are actually answered. Whether heaven intervenes or not is of little importance as long as the publicity stunt manages to mobilize the “value voters.” After all, God moves in mysterious ways, right?

The problem for religious voters is that politicians seem to love Jesus in the same way rap stars love Jesus, that is, as long as he continues to make them lots and lots of money. Christianity may not be the latest, but it is by far the most dominant political fashion symbol.

As Bill Clinton found out after the Monica Lewinsky debacle, a little help from Billy Graham certainly helps smooth things over in the PR department. Likewise, for former president George W. Bush as long as you’re willing to say you’re Christian long enough and loud enough, very few people will take the time to examine whether or not you’re acting like one.

The list goes on of course, from Sarah Palin’s crackpot congregation in Alaska to the vapid and ugly things said by Obama’s former pastor Rev. Wright, it appears that the particulars of which church you go to and what it actually stands for are of no matter…well, as long as it isn’t a Mormon church.

This isn’t to say I doubt the sincerity of the faith of Barack Obama, or even (especially) Sarah Palin. Rather, the problem I’m beginning to see is that church attendance among American politicians has become something rather compulsory. It is less a matter of personal belief and more a matter of necessity, religion is the ticket to the big show, and without it you simply aren’t getting in.

The problem this has created is that, in the words of Senneca, religion is “(Considered) by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” For many established politicians, the religious voter is seen merely as a means to an end and as such both valued and held in contempt.

Statements of faith are thrown about loosely and freely without any real thought of consequence, and it has created a game in which the particularly cruel and manipulative are able to twist an entire group of voters around their finger with a couple passing comments. There is something that even I as a secularist find to be appalling and crass and banal about this commodification of religious belief and the shamelessness of those for whom statements of faith are little more than useful catchphrases.

The issue, however, is that those of us on this side of the aisle shouldn’t have to be the ones pointing this out. How much more offensive should it be to those who actually believe in the holiness of these texts to see them used in such a way? They are what Christ would call white-washed tombs, clean on the outside but inside full of death.

It should be the responsibility of the believer first to doubt and to question and to challenge those who would attempt to bring their faith into the political realm, if only to keep their own house clean. It should be unquestionable that the believer above anyone else would want to expose and remove such a corrosive practice from within their own ranks and yet it doesn’t seem to happen.

Perhaps they don’t want to know. Perhaps they would rather not deal with the scandal. I assure you that, in either case, the scandal is present whether they acknowledge it or not and unless action is taken from within, it will persist and grow until the last semblance of sincerity and integrity is gone.

It is in the hands of the “value voters” to vote not just for those who talk the talk, but who walk the walk. Perhaps then the name of Christ will go back to being something more than a buzz word.