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Bloc Québécois MP Rheal Fortin rises during Question Period in the House of Commons, on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, on Nov. 19, 2018.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

The federal online harms bill needs to be changed to stop religion from being used as a defence for hate speech, say the Bloc Québécois, Jewish groups and members of the LGBTQ community, who fear it could be exploited as a loophole for promoting homophobia, racial abuse and antisemitism.

Bloc MP Rhéal Fortin said he plans to press the government for an amendment to the bill that would remove from the Criminal Code the defence of religion for hate speech.

He said the defence, currently in the Criminal Code could allow a person who incites or promotes hatred, based on religious beliefs or a religious text, to escape prosecution, calling it “very, very concerning – a big problem.”

Religious texts should never be used as an excuse to spread hate about people’s sexual orientation, their gender, race or any other religion, he said. “The law has to be followed by everyone, whatever your religion is.”

The online harms bill seeks to tackle hate speech online, and would create a new ombudsperson and digital safety commission that could investigate complaints. It also would allow people to complain to the Human Rights Commission about hate speech.

The bill sets a high bar for what would count as hate speech – it would not include offensive or humiliating comments or remarks expressing dislike, disdain or political dissent, according to the federal Justice Department.

LGBTQ advocate Gemma Hickey, who founded The Pathways Foundation, which offers support to survivors of religious institutional abuse, said it is “crucial to include discussions on religion and hate speech during the committee examination of the bill.”

A bill banning conversion therapy last year, which passed unanimously, stops people, including church organizations, from using therapy to change people’s sexual orientation.

“Christian organizations have used biblical passages to support conversion therapy, which that bill successfully addressed without infringing upon their freedom of worship. I’m curious if a similar strategy could be implemented in this case,” they said.

“Considering the alarming increase in threats and assaults targeting queer and trans Canadians … it becomes even more crucial to establish additional parameters for when such a defence could be invoked,” they said.

Amira Elghawaby, Canada’s special representative on combatting Islamophobia, said it is “up to decision-makers to decide whether they want to explore” a move to stop religion from being used as a defence for hate speech.

“It should be clear that the promotion of hate against any individual or group is antithetical to the faith traditions of Canada’s Muslim communities,” she said.

Richard Marceau, vice-president, external affairs and general counsel for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said, “No person, religious leaders included, should be able to hide behind a religious exemption to spread hate simply by using verses from a holy book or standing behind a pulpit in a house of worship.

“This exemption should be removed from the Criminal Code. We hope this bill is debated soon and we look forward to participating in its study at committee,” he said.

Mr. Fortin cited the example of a Montreal Imam who at a pro-Palestinian rally last year led a public prayer calling for the extermination of “Zionist aggressors.”

The Quebec RCMP has looked into whether Imam Adil Charkaoui committed a hate crime during the rally, and has sent the file to the province’s director of criminal and penal prosecutions.

“We are awaiting their decision to see if criminal charges are recommended or not,” said Sgt. Charles Poirier, spokesman for the RCMP.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in the Commons last year that the imam’s words at the rally were “unacceptable and antisemitic.”

Mr. Fortin said there is support across the political spectrum for changes to the religious hate-speech defence and plans to push for it at Commons committees when the online harms bill is considered.

Justice Minister Arif Virani told the justice committee earlier this month he would be willing to consider good-faith adjustments to the bill.

“We look forward to Parliament debating C-63 and would be open to considering amendments that could improve the bill,” said the minister’s communications director, David Taylor.

Angela Marinos, chief general counsel of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, said it “would be in favour of amending, or at least clarifying, the defences set out in the Criminal Code regarding public incitement of hatred and willful promotion of antisemitism.”

Bernie Farber, a founder of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, said religious leaders “have a special responsibility to promote peace and harmony.”

“It is necessary to ensure that malicious and hateful speech from some religious leaders do not violate the law,” he said. “Sadly we have seen cases of religious leaders embrace and provoke hate speech.”

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet has also introduced a private member’s bill, known as Bill C-367, to repeal the religious defence against promoting hatred and antisemitism in the Criminal Code.

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