icon-restrictions-blasphemyWhile human rights and freedoms are generally upheld in Canada, there is a law against “Blasphemous Libel”. Strong constitutional protections probably make the prison sentence truly unenforceable, but the law remains on statue.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a bill of rights from the Constitution of Canada. It details “fundamental freedoms” (section 2) including freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom of belief, freedom of expression, freedom of the press and of other media of communication, freedom of peaceful assembly, and freedom of association.

However, section 296(1) of the Criminal Code says that “Blasphemous Libel” is an indictable offence and is punishable with imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years.

“296. (1) Every one who publishes a blasphemous libel is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years (2) It is a question of fact whether or not any matter that is published is a blasphemous libel. (3) No person shall be convicted of an offence under this section for expressing in good faith and in decent language, or attempting to establish by argument used in good faith and conveyed in decent language, an opinion on a religious subject.”

Moratoria and "dead letter" lawsThere has been a de facto moratorium on the use of this law since the 1930s, and would probably be found unconstitutional if challenged. However, it remains on the books, and therefore perpetuates both the potential to chill free expression about religion, and poor international standards.

There is a national campaign by CFI Canada and by Humanist Canada, who have been lobbying together to abolish the “blasphemy law”.

Conversely, some remarks that may constitute incitement to hatred may be protected if they are alleged to be based on “religion”. Section 319 of The Criminal Code makes the public incitement of hatred of identifiable groups an offence punishable by an imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years. However, section (3, b) of the same law exempts such hatred speech from prosecution “if, in good faith, the person expressed or attempted to establish by an argument an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text;”. As a result, some religious leaders take advantage of this exemption and promote anti-atheist or ethnic hate speech with full impunity providing they use quotes from “sacred” texts.