Professor Tom Farr's clearly written paper traces for the reader the development of the idea of religious freedom in the American context from the founding days of the republic during the Enlightenment through to our times in which the very acceptance of religious freedom as a core principle in our society is under threat.
Farr argues persuasively that the United States' founding fathers created a system of religious freedom based on the free exercise principle that was genuinely new. This system recognized a public faith, one that reflected the interior faith lives of citizens in how they conducted themselves religiously in the public space. This was possible due to the conception held by the vast majority of Americans that they were a religious people, yet this historic understanding has shifted fundamentally. Farr buttresses this civic understanding of religious freedom with the Catholic understanding of religious freedom and its insistence on human dignity and conscience leading to an exploration of how religious freedom is exercised by faithful individuals and those self-same individuals existing as and operating within communities of faith.
Farr offers a clear warning around the growing intolerance for religious freedom in the United States in the face of non-discrimination laws and a rejection of religious freedom as being intrinsically bound up in the common good. This state of affairs has led to a collective forgetting of what religious freedom means. It is an amnesia that is hindering the United States' ability to engage religion when it confronts it in the world of international affairs.
In examining the impact of recent judicial rulings on cases under Section 2a of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that enshrines freedom of conscience and religion, Faisal Bhabha draws our attention to how individuals' religious expression has been and is being accommodated within Canadian jurisprudence. Bhabha argues that the Supreme Court of Canada is striving in its decisions to reflect the multicultural nature of Canadian society by striking a balance between competing interests. In so doing, Bhabha posits, the Court is shifting from a posture of strong rights articulation to a weak rights application. The paper also highlights the emerging challenge of 'faithism'—a new form of discrimination increasingly manifested by public sceptics who ascribe negative characteristics or flawed values to people who profess a religious faith—and the impact that such discrimination can have on Canada's multicultural and multi-faith reality.
As we at Cardus continue to advance our efforts to better comprehend, reveal, and reflect on our common life, freedom of religion or conscience looms large. This freedom enables us to live fully as we are and are called to be. It bears witness to the fact that we as human beings have a metaphysical need to make sense of our world and to encounter God. Beyond the legal framings of religious freedom contained in international human rights covenants is a freedom to contemplate who I am: Who I am in relationship to you; who I am in relationship to the created world; and who I am in relationship to God or to a particular philosophy. The ability to freely and both publicly and privately act on that metaphysical need is foundational to our democracy, our common life together, and indeed to our capacity to recognize and actively embrace the dignity each one of us bears. Without the guarantee of this freedom we are no less free in our interior life, but when freedom of religion is threatened or ignored, the living out of our public lives of faith can be undermined, sometimes gravely so.