When public prejudice can serve the greater good: Saunders

Usual interesting and sensible commentary by Doug Saunders on how the request from an exemption from music classes led to a good result and defence of a neutral and inclusive space where all can live together:

Many religious concessions are uncontroversial. Few Canadians object to cafeterias offering non-pork options for observant Jews and Muslims. After a period of debate, most people have come to accept public officials wearing Christian crosses, Jewish yarmulkes, Islamic head coverings or Sikh turbans while on duty. These things may offend logic and aesthetics, but they do no harm and don’t interfere with anyone else’s life.

But some concessions to the religious aren’t benign or harmless. When spirituality infringes on the working of the legal, educational or medical systems, we have a problem – even if we don’t notice at first.

Most shockingly, Canadian provinces allow religious exemptions to the requirement that children be vaccinated in order to attend school.

These exemptions, generally granted to people who claim to be members of ascetic Christian or Jewish denominations, are far, far more dangerous than a pass from music class.

Mr. Dasu is harming only the minds of his children (and mortifying most Canadians of Muslim faith). But if even 10 per cent of a community’s children escape vaccination, they endanger the lives of every child in their city, including those who are vaccinated. This is not a reasonable accommodation.

Groups of Christians and Muslims in Ontario have spent the past year trying to withdraw or exempt their kids from public schools because they’ve come to believe that the province’s rather anodyne reproductive-health curriculum is contradictory to their faith. As harmful as this is to their kids, the province can do little to complain because in the 1980s it granted Canada’s most extensive religious concession by allowing Roman Catholics to withdraw their children from public school entirely and self-segregate with a fully taxpayer-funded religious school system.

It’s unfortunate that people only began to notice these incursions when Salafi Muslims began requesting them. But it’s one instance where public prejudice can serve the greater good.

We saw a great example of this in Ontario’s 2005 decision on quasi-judicial tribunals. These tribunals, known as “faith-based arbitration,” had been created in the early 1990s to reduce the cost and workload of courts by letting churches and synagogues rule on family-law and property disputes. Their rulings, and rules, were often contradictory to Canadian values and laws. But people only began to notice in 2003, when mosques wanted in on the action: Suddenly, those tribunals, applying nearly identical religious laws became known as “sharia courts.”

Ontario responded wisely, by stripping all faith-based tribunals of legal authority. It was a rare moment when the ugly voices of Islamophobia helped secure a neutral, secular public sphere in which people of all faiths and backgrounds can live together. If we’re lucky, Mr. Dasu’s musical tastes will give us another.

Source: When public prejudice can serve the greater good – The Globe and Mail

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About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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