Pretend for a moment you are a pagan living in prison. You request spiritual advice and solace from a chaplain of your own faith and, when they arrive, you are surprised to see a Christian minister wearing a cross round their neck and clutching a Bible snugly under their arm. Canada’s Ministry of Public Safety’s recent decision to terminate the contracts of all but one non-Christian federal prison chaplain will likely cause this unfortunate scenario to play out with increasing frequency. The decision creates a dangerous precedent for Canadian chaplains who decide to become ordained in non-Christian faiths, as well as the inmates they serve.
Canadian Office of Public Safety Cancels Contracts with All Part-Time Chaplains
Soon after shelving plans to hire a Wiccan chaplain for British Columbia’s federal prisons, Office of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews announced the federal government’s decision to terminate the contracts of all part-time federal prison chaplains. The decision would greatly distort religious representation in the federal chaplain program, skewing the numbers of ordained ministers sharply in favor of Christians. Currently there are 80-full time chaplains, all of which are Christian except for one Muslim. There are also 100 part-time chaplains, 20 of whom are non-Christian. Scrapping all part-time prison chaplaincies means only one non-Christian chaplain will remain.
Toews, a member of Canada’s Conservative Party, defended the decision by touting the government’s religious neutrality. He argued the federal government “strongly supports the freedom of religion for all Canadians, including prisoners,” but that it “is not in the business of picking and choosing which religions will be given preferential status through government funding.” The irony of this statement is that preferential treatment for Christianity is precisely what the Canadian government has done, even if it was not their intention. As with discrimination cases in employment law, policies that have a disparate impact (i.e. give preferential status to one class of people even if it wasn’t the policy-maker’s desire to do so) are illegal regardless of their intention. It is thus fair to say that Toews and the Ministry of Public Safety are discriminating against non-Christians and are not providing adequate resources for non-Christian prison inmates.
Inmates Supposed to Receive Equal Treatment, But Will They?
Toews and others have argued that minority faith inmates will receive equal treatment in the wake of this new decision. “The Minister has concluded … that chaplains employed by (the Correctional Service of Canada) must provide services to inmates of all faiths,” he said in email. However, as Lorna Dueck writes, an ordained pastor in Christianity cannot possibly provide a Hindu or Muslim adequate spiritual advice, given their lack of knowledge in these religions. Monique Marchand, president of the Interfaith Committee on Chaplaincy, which advises the correctional service on the spiritual care of inmates, defended Toews. Full-time chaplains, she explained, will be coordinating the pastoral care of minority faith prisoners by requesting local clergy to volunteer their services. But if this is possible, why have any full-time chaplains at all? The government can simply hire liaisons to work with local faith communities for inmates’ care, thereby avoiding religious bias.
Decision to Cancel Part-Time Chaplains’ Contracts Violates Basic Canadian Rights
The government’s decision might also violate federal protections for equality and religious freedom. Irwin Cotler, a professor of law (emeritus) at Montreal’s McGill University, argues that the decision disregards principles enshrined in Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Freedom of conscience and religion is explicitly protected in Section 2 of the Charter, while Section 15(1) guarantees equal treatment before the law regardless of religion. If the government is truly committed to these fundamental principles, it may need to start hiring more chaplains who get ordained outside the Christian tradition.
Like the Universal Life Church Monastery, Canada is widely respected for its dedication to diversity and religious freedom. While the federal government supports religious freedom for all on paper, its recent decision to drastically reduce the number of non-Christian chaplains belies its official position on freedom and equality. Hopefully the decision will be reversed, and all inmates will retain adequate access to spiritual advice and pastoral care from chaplains who belong to their own faith systems.