Faith and Diversity in the Public Realm: An Ongoing Dialogue

Mariel's picture

In 1991, the Ontario government began to permit the use of faith-based courts by members of religious groups to resolve civil disputes. While they initially did not create any public controversy, faith-based arbitration came under scrutiny in 2004 when an Islamic group in Ontario sought permission to create a civil court based on sharia, Islamic traditional law. This request was met with resistance from many groups, particularly Muslim women, who were concerned that many interpretations of sharia law discriminate towards women.

In 2005, Premier Dalton McGuinty struck down the appeal for sharia law and subsequently banned all forms of religious courts in the province. The heated debate that ensued over sharia law raised many questions about faith and diversity in Canada: How can the rights of religious groups to live out their beliefs be respected while also ensuring protection for individual rights? What is the place of faith in public life? How do we accommodate diversity while still maintaining common values?

Some of these questions were addressed last Tuesday, October 28th, when CPJ hosted a lecture by Dr. Jonathan Chaplin at the Institute for Christian Studies (ICS) in Toronto.

Jonathan, a CPJ member and former professor at ICS, spoke on “Faith and Diversity: Integrity and Solidarity in a Plural Society”. He asked important questions regarding the role of faith in our increasingly diverse society, and explored how to establish a balance between maintaining religious integrity and practicing solidarity among different cultural and faith communities.

Jonathan discussed the relationship between religion and politics, and spoke of the current political culture that defines the public and political arena as secular space and limits faith perspectives to the private sphere. He advocated for the fostering of institutional pluralism, which creates public space for a diverse array of religious, cultural and other worldviews to actively live out their beliefs in all areas of society, including politics.

Institutional pluralism is based on the recognition that people are not solely individuals, but are interconnected through a variety of communities such as families, neighbourhoods, community groups, educational institutions, voluntary associations, churches, and other religious institutions. Pluralism understands social institutions – of which the state is only one – as possessing unique rights and responsibilities that reflect their purpose in society.

Jonathan emphasized that religious pluralism – enabling a variety of faith worldviews to be expressed in the public and political arena – is an important component of this discussion. Public justice requires the state to actively promote tolerance and respect for diversity, and engage in balancing these institutional and individual rights and responsibilities within society.1

However, as the debate over sharia law demonstrated, allowing maximum space for the freedom of public expression of religions and different worldviews can often result in conflict. As a society, how can we accommodate religious plurality while simultaneously protecting individual rights? How do we resolve such conflicts without establishing a hierarchy of rights or marginalizing legitimate concerns? How do we create respect for diversity while promoting the common good?

There are no simple answers to these complex questions. When discussing the debate over sharia law in Ontario, Jonathan concluded that while “a line always needs to be drawn somewhere” between individual and group rights when the two come into conflict, these situations are inevitably complex and often do not result in outcomes that satisfy all the parties involved.

However, he stressed the importance of public debates on issues of diversity and religious accommodation as a way of promoting ongoing dialogue between groups and institutions in Canadian society.

This kind of widespread public dialogue occurred in 2007 in Québec, when the government established the Consultation Commission on Accommodation Practices Related to Cultural Differences (commonly referred to as the Bouchard-Taylor commission) in response to public discontent concerning the reasonable accommodation of diversity.

After extensive consultation, the Commission recommended against limiting public space to “secular” expression and instead advocated for the presence of diverse faith perspectives in the public realm. In the report, the Commission concluded that “the most sensible, effective way to become accustomed to cultural differences, including religious affiliations, is not to hide them but to display them. This is also the condition that enables us to promote them and to benefit from them”.

We must continue to ask questions and consider the meaning of pluralism, faith and diversity in our society today. Public justice calls us to promote tolerance and compassion, and foster public space in which a plurality of worldviews can flourish. In doing so, we can create a society where every person can actively live out his or her own beliefs and ensure mutual respect for diversity.

  1. 1. Chaplin, Jonathan. Faith in the State: The Peril and Promise of Christian Politics. Institute for Christian Studies, 1999. Pp. 18-19.
Mariel Angus is CPJ’s former policy intern.


Submitted by Anonymous on
Great article! Thanks for the summary of Jonathan's talk.. While I was there that night, it is nice to see his words written down. It is always good to hear something again a few weeks later and be able to reflect on it a bit more! For what its worth, I wanted to make the comment that public justice is not just tolerance. I have never liked the word tolerance, as it seems to suggest that we are willing to 'tolerate' the customs, religions, beliefs etc. of others. It may seem petty, but I think the language that we use really does influence how we approach issues. We are called to do more than simply allow or accept other faith perspectives. I would hope that we here in Canada could go further than simply showing tolerance, instead truly celebrating and showing pride in our diverse perspectives.

Add new comment

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.