Ontario Bill 89 Seeks to Protect Religious Expression
On March 1, 2022, MPP Sam Oosterhoff introduced Bill 89, Protecting Ontario’s Religious Diversity Act, 2022. This important private member’s bill will help protect religious freedom in Ontario by adding “religious expression” as a separate ground of protection in the Ontario Human Rights Code. It’s exciting to see important legislation like this being introduced by individual MPPs in Ontario.
Background on the Human Rights Code
The Ontario Human Rights Code has been law since 1962. It initially protected against discrimination on the basis of race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry, and place of origin. Since then, this list of six has been expanded to include 14 “protected grounds.” The Code now prohibits discrimination based on these criteria: 1. Age, 2. Ancestry, colour, or race, 3. Citizenship, 4. Ethnic origin, 5. Place of origin, 6. Creed, 7. Disability, 8. Family status, 9. Marital status, 10. Gender identity or gender expression, 11. Receipt of public assistance in housing, 12. Record of offences in employment, 13. Sex, 14. Sexual orientation.
The 14 criteria are protected in five different areas of society: 1. Housing, 2. Contracts, 3. Employment, 4. Goods, services, and facilities, and 5. Membership in unions, trade, or professional associations.
The Human Rights Code prohibits discrimination between citizens, or discrimination by government, based on specific identifying factors and in specific areas of daily life. (It is different than the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which is supposed to shield citizens from the government itself). There are plenty of concerns we could raise with the Human Rights Code overall and how it is applied, including discussions on whether it is effective or abused. However, those concerns aside, Bill 89 (2022) is an important and helpful improvement to the Code.
What Does Bill 89 (2022) Do?
Currently, the Human Rights Code protects against discrimination based on someone’s ‘creed.’ This means that every Ontarian should have access to the same benefits and opportunities regardless of their creed. The problem is that ‘creed’ is not defined in the Code (though the Ontario Human Rights Commission has published this paper on “creed.”
In past court decisions, the courts often refer to religious beliefs and practices related to creed, also including non-religious belief systems. The Ontario Human Rights Commission clarifies that creed can include a belief system that is deeply held, linked to someone’s identity, comprehensive, addresses ultimate questions about human life and existence, and has a connection to a community sharing that belief system.
It’s still somewhat vague, but creed is roughly related to religious freedom. What Bill 89 (2022) does is amend the Ontario Human Rights Code to explicitly protect Ontarians against discrimination because of religious expression in addition to creed. Ultimately, it adds needed clarity to the protected grounds in the Human Rights Code, to expand on the importance of religious freedom.
Adding religious expression to the Code in this way protects the ability for Ontarians to live according to their beliefs. Every Ontarian must be able to speak about and live according to their religious beliefs. Religious freedom does not only mean the ability to hold certain beliefs internally or in isolation but also to act in a way that is consistent with those beliefs.
What Can We Expect if This Bill Passes?
If this bill passes, it is hard to say what kind of change it will make in practice, as the Code is applied by the Human Rights Commission and/or the Human Rights Tribunal. The Ontario Human Rights Commission and the Tribunal tend towards prioritizing other protected grounds over creed. There is often a misunderstanding of what religion is, and what it implies for the way people act.
As Christians, our faith impacts everything we do, including the ways we treat things like employment or the provision of goods and services. We seek to act in a way that is connected to our faith and to uphold human dignity and human rights. This bill is a step in the right direction toward further protecting religious liberty and the ability to act according to one’s beliefs, including in interactions with other Ontarians.
The bill is not likely to pass primarily because of its timeline. The Ontario provincial election is set for June 2, 2022, and the legislature will stop their work in advance of that for the campaign period. Private members’ bills often take time to go through the process of debate, votes, and committee study, so there is likely not enough time for that process to be completed. However, the bill is scheduled to be debated at 2nd reading on March 29, and is worth supporting when that happens, even if it does not have time to become law.
We care about religious freedom and religious expression, not just for Christians, but for everyone. Religious freedom is a fundamental freedom that is critical to allowing a society like ours to flourish. To be human is to be religious and includes the ability to express one’s religion. Bill 89 (2022) supports principles of religious freedom and human liberty and seeks to provide further liberty for Ontarians to live according to their faith.
Religious freedom requires vigorous defence by our civil governments, and Bill 89 (2022) seeks to improve that defence in Ontario. Stay tuned for further ways you can support this bill when it is debated at 2nd reading.