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Around the Jewish World Canadian Move on Religious Law Takes Jewish Community by Surprise

September 14, 2005
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Pressed by demonstrators who say Muslim religious law threatens women’s rights, the premier of Ontario said this week that the province will no longer support faith-based arbitrations, a move that has sent shock waves through the Jewish community. Dalton McGuinty’s pronouncement, which could be translated into law this fall, also removes the legalistic teeth from rabbinical courts and Christian tribunals operating across the province.

Rabbinical courts have been practicing in Ontario for more than a century and were specifically empowered to do so by provincial legislation enacted in 1991 in matters related to family and civil law, such as divorce, child custody, inheritance and workplace conflicts.

However, McGuinty asserted Sunday in an interview with The Associated Press that religious arbitrations “threaten the common ground” of the residents of Canada’s most populous province.

“There will be no sharia law in Ontario,” McGuinty said, referring to the Islamic legal code. “There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians.”

Rabbinical courts and other modes of faith-based arbitration would continue to operate, but the government intends to withdraw legal authority from such entities, making their decisions much harder to enforce.

Dismayed by the lack of consultation, Jewish groups reacted with surprise and consternation. As they plan their strategies, they’re seeking clarification of the government’s intention and how it will translate into legislation.

Joel Richler, the chairman of the Canadian Jewish Congress’ Ontario region, described the move as a “knee-jerk reaction” and indicated that the CJC was preparing to challenge it.

“We’re concerned about a process that didn’t take place, and we’re concerned that government supports that were working quite well have been pulled without an opportunity to discuss it with the premier,” said Rachael Turkienicz, the vice chairwoman of CJC’s national executive.

The government apparently ignored recommendations by former Attorney General Marion Boyd in a report issued last winter. Boyd recommended continued use of Ontario’s Arbitration Act, provided that additional safeguards are implemented in response to concerns that sharia law impinges on women’s rights, for example.

Boyd found no evidence that women face discriminatory treatment under sharia law, but many Muslim and other women assert that it curtails women’s rights and would erode Canada’s secular legal tradition. High-profile activists such as the Toronto writer Margaret Atwood and the human-rights supporter June Callwood lent additional publicity to the anti-sharia protest.

Rabbi Reuven Tradburks, the secretary for Toronto’s beit din, or rabbinical court, was unavailable for comment Tuesday. However, he told the Canadian Jewish News that while he understood the concerns raised about sharia, “the solution is not necessarily to throw out all faith-based arbitration.”

Tradburks’ court hears about 25 cases a year, most involving employee-employer conflicts, while another Toronto-based rabbinical court hears about 100 cases each year related to Jewish divorces.

B’nai Brith Canada’s 20-person national advisory board discussed the matter for several hours in Toronto on Tuesday. Anita Bromberg, the organization’s legal counsel, told JTA before the meeting that the withdrawal of support for faith-based arbitration could be seen as a violation of religious rights guaranteed by Canada’s national charter.

“Section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provides that the law must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians,” she said.

Instead of curtailing religious freedoms for all, the government should attempt to balance competing interests, Bromberg said.

“They should be trying to enhance the protections against vulnerable minorities already built into the arbitration system,” she said. “The solution that the government has apparently come up with doesn’t balance anything, and that’s our concern. From a constitutional standpoint, balance is the key.”

Like the Canadian Jewish Congress, B’nai Brith is planning to mount a challenge, either in the courts or when the government introduces draft legislation, Bromberg indicated.

“We’re looking for an opportunity to make a response and have our voices heard in a democratic process,” she said.

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