Timely new book cuts to the heart of religious pluralism

Prof Benjamin Berger of York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School edits provocative new book on religion and public authority that promises to have ripple effect into public policy.

Should a public official be entitled to refuse to officiate a same-sex marriage on religious grounds?  Should a doctor, citing religious objections, be exempted from participating in physician-assisted death? These are the issues raised by Osgoode Law Professor Benjamin Berger, together with University of Windsor Law Professor Richard Moon, in a timely new book that unites an interdisciplinary group of top Canadian scholars around such contentious questions that affect those who are involved in exercising public power, and cuts to the heart of religious pluralism and state neutrality.

<Caption> Religion and the Exercise of Public Authority raises some key questions for public policy, such as whether or not a public official could refuse to officiate a same-sex marriage on religious grounds.

Religion and the Exercise of Public Authority raises some key questions for public policy, such as whether or not a public official could refuse to officiate a same-sex marriage on religious grounds

This policy-relevant book, Religion and the Exercise of Public Authority, published in 2016 by Hart Publishing (United Kingdom), is sure to attract global interest inside the academy, across a variety of disciplines − public policy, sociology, law, religion, equity, human rights − and outside of the academy into the public and political realms.

<Caption> Berger and Moon’s 2016 book. Image reproduced with permission from Hart Publishing.

Berger and Moon’s 2016 book. Image reproduced with permission from Hart Publishing

“The book reminds us that the state isn’t an abstract entity, but embodied in individuals, actors who are invested with commitments and identities, and called upon to discharge specific duties,” write Berger and Moon.

Area of study seeks to reflect, interpret larger social issues

Law and religion, an emerging field in the world of academia, is an area of study that reflects and tries to interpret larger social issues.

To date, the field of law and religion has tended to focus on secularism, the idea of tolerance and the scope of religious freedom. But this new book digs deeper to consider the role that religion plays in the public arena and how it affects the decisions and experiences of those in positions of public authority.

Questions the idea of state neutrality; shows its limitations

This book sheds light on the concepts that are often used to organize and manage religious diversity – chiefly, the idea of state neutrality – and, reveals the limitations of this governing ideal.

As global experts in this field, Berger and Moon bring together leading scholars from across Canada: Osgoode/York contributors Faisal Bhabha, Amélie Barras and Bruce Ryder are joined by the University of Toronto’s Pamela Klassen and University of Ottawa’s Lori Beaman. Jocelyn Maclure, Laval University; Daniel Weinstock and Shauna Van Praagh, McGill University; Paul Bramadat, University of Victoria; Jennifer Selby, Memorial; and Solange Lefebvre, University of Montreal, are also contributors.

Chapters paint comprehensive picture

Each chapter focuses on a distinct aspect of this complex issue. Collectively, the contributions paint a comprehensive picture. Examples include:

  • Klassen discusses how public officials in the early 20th century made Christian claims about Canada and the land that were in direct competition with Indigenous ideas of the land in an effort to firm up state sovereignty.
  • Moon, writing on same-sex marriage, concludes that civil servants have no claim to be excused from performing the tasks, simply because they are morally opposed to government policy.
  • Weinstock believes that the state’s limitation of religious education might actually be necessary for the realization of the religious freedom of parents, while Van Praagh’s chapter argues that public education is an intrinsically interfaith enterprise.

<Caption> One contributor suggests that public education is an intrinsically interfaith enterprise.

One contributor suggests that public education is an intrinsically interfaith enterprise

  • Ryder’s chapter on physician-assisted death explores how the work of doctors can be intertwined with religious identity, so much so that a considerable moral toll is placed on the doctor’s identity.
  • Picking up on high-profile debates in Quebec and across Canada on what neutrality means (“Charter of Secularism” debates), Maclure considers whether public officials should be prohibited from wearing conspicuous religious symbols. He concludes that banning officials from wearing religious signs is unacceptable due to the toll that such a ban would place on officials with strongly held religious beliefs.
  • Berger’s chapter contends that bans on judges wearing religious symbols are not only indefensible in light of diversity and inclusion but also unappealing in the light of the role that judges play in a diverse society. Berger says that allowing officials to wear religious symbols may enhance the legitimacy of public functions.
  • Bhabha’s chapter, which considers that relationship between lawyers and religion, asks what might be lost or sacrificed by an overzealous insistence on separating a person’s religious self from their public role.

    A doctor’s personal views on physician-assisted death take a high moral toll.

    A doctor’s personal views on physician-assisted death take a high moral toll

“A judgment by the state suggesting that the beliefs of one group are less true than another may be experienced as a denial of one’s equal worth, or  the marginalization of one’s religious community.” – Benjamin Berger

Book underscores complexity of religious identity

The book explores the complexities that arise for public policy from treating religion as a deep part of the identity of both individuals and groups. One sentence sums this up: “A judgment by the state suggesting that the beliefs of one group are less true than another may be experienced as a denial of one’s equal worth, or the marginalization of one’s religious community.”

Berger’s scholarly monograph, Law’s Religion: Religious Difference and the Claims of Constitutionalism © University of Toronto Press 2015. Image reproduced with permission.

Berger’s scholarly monograph, Law’s Religion: Religious Difference and the Claims of Constitutionalism. Image reproduced with permission

The editors believe that the insights generated in this edited collection will spread to a wide audience, “teaching us something more general about the complexity of identity, the nature of the liberal state, and the challenges of public life in a condition of deep religious pluralism.”

Berger also contributes to the advancement of scholarship with original work in the areas of law and religion, criminal and constitutional law and theory, and the law of evidence.

Berger’s monograph, Law’s Religion, which studies constitutional law and religious difference in Canada, was published by the University of Toronto (U of T) Press in 2015.

To read about Berger, visit https://www.osgoode.yorku.ca/faculty-and-staff/berger-benjamin/.

To learn more about the book, visit http://www.bloomsburyprofessional.com/uk/religion-and-the-exercise-of-public-authority-9781849467155/

For more information on Law’s Religion, go to http://www.utppublishing.com/Laws-Religion-Religious-Difference-and-the-Claims-of-Constitutionalism.html

By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca