Toronto ignores separation of church and state

Post by Eric Mang in ,


Nativity Scene

As the holiday season draws to a close and Valentine’s detritus will soon litter store shelves, I thought I would get something off my chest.

A few weeks ago, I walked past Toronto’s Old City Hall. Designed by the same architect, EJ Lennox, who assisted Sir Henry Pellatt with Casa Loma, Old City Hall is a marvelous edifice. But what caught my eye was the nativity scene on the front lawn.

Although municipal offices long ago vacated Old City Hall, moved across the street to the quasi-futuristic New City Hall (so futuristic, it appears in an episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation), it is now a courthouse. A place to go to argue that parking infraction or illegal left turn.

Should a courthouse display religious icons? In 2003, a monument of the Ten Commandments was removed from the state judicial building in Montgomery, Alabama. This was an unpopular move in the pious deep south, but the ruling federal judge declared that such a monument violated the separation of church and state (although not explicitly stated in the US Constitution, the separation of church and state is a legal and political principle stemming from the First Amendment. Thomas Jefferson, a noted deist and possible atheist – see “Thomas Jefferson: Author of America” by Christopher Hitchens – is credited with first using the phrase “separation of church and state” in a letter dated from 1802.)

Like the US, Canada does not have an explicit statement separating church and state, but we certainly observe this distinction. Part of the observance may be due to religious freedom; that no religion be offered a greater place in our society over others; and, part of our observance may be due to adherence to multiculturalism and a willingness to accommodate a variety of faiths, no faiths, and cultures.

So I was a little confounded as to why a nativity scene appeared on municipal property. Olympia, Washington recently made headlines when members from the Freedom from Religion Foundation posted a sign in the state Capitol, near a nativity scene, that read: “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.” Predictably, it caused an uproar, but I would reason that if you allow for one expression of (non)belief, you allow for them all. A giant menorah should sit alongside a plastic baby Jesus that is next to a winter solstice scene that is next to the birth of the Flying Spaghetti Monster that is next to a celebration of Saint Lucy.

Rationalists are growing in number. Almost 20% of Canadians identify themselves as having no belief, atheist, agnostic or freethinking. Prior to 1971, fewer than 1% reported having no religion. Perhaps the City of Toronto either allows everyone to put up a display (which could result in an unwieldy, and humorous, mess) or observe a clear separation of church and state.

Or as George Carlin said: Thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself.


The Hitchen's rationalist argument has an issue with prepositional phrases. Jeffersonian seperation of church and state was essentially an argument of freedom FOR religion (or religious expression), not freedom FROM religion. The more sinister point of view is Carlin's. Privatization of belief is essentially a bullying tactic to reduce competiton in the marketplace of ideas.

Freedom of religion can also be freedom from religion. Jefferson was often painted as an atheist by his political opponents - let's not try to revise history.

Moreover, given the wealth, influence and intimidation practiced by the Abrahamic religions in particular, there is little threat of those beliefs fading in the marketplace of ideas. In fact, your final statement is nonsense given the point of this post. Religion shouldn't have a place in the role of the state or governance. However, it is more than welcome in the marketplace of ideas. The Carlin quote, I admit is taken out of context - I used his statement to fortify my argument that religion is a private affair when it comes to matters of the state.

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