Defining religious freedom

Defining religious freedom

A University of Ottawa researcher is helping to address faith-based issues
April 27, 2011

For some, the freedom to practise their religion is vitally important while for others, the freedom not to practise any religion is equally so. How does Canada balance the rights and freedoms of its multicultural population with its state-defined limits on religious freedom? University of Ottawa professor Lori Beaman tries to answer this question and in the process, help policy-makers define the bounds of religious freedom in Canada and abroad.

Beaman, who holds the Canada Research Chair in the Contextualization of Religion in a Diverse Canada, works with an international team of 36 researchers from 24 universities in five countries, along with policy-makers from around the world to understand how people define religious freedom. “Understanding the complex role of religion and its influence in Canada in particular, helps policy-makers interpret the many translations of religion and freedom,” says Beaman. “This is crucial to maintaining a just and free country”

As director of the Religion and Diversity Project, an initiative that aims to understand the defining factors of religious diversity for the promotion of a fair and peaceful society, Beaman aims to help clarify current significant religious and societal issues, such as the application of Sharia law in a secular state, the legality of polygamy and the role of religion in public debates over same-sex marriage. Beaman’s research is encouraging dialogue among the public, policy-makers and academics to help establish laws and policies that protect religious freedoms.

Beaman and her colleagues conduct much of their research in a CFI-funded centre. It houses her research group and provides students a dedicated space for conducting focus groups and one-on-one interviews on issues related to religious freedom. The centre is also home to a variety of events, including a new lecture series hosted by Beaman titled "Building Bridges." This initiative brings together scholars across disciplines and is used for ongoing research discussion for graduate students and faculty to facilitate future collaborations.

Beaman’s research is particularly relevant to Canadians. Her recent work, for example, focused on Quebec’s Bill 94, which bans the wearing of the niqab in public, the current constitutional battle regarding polygamy in British Columbia and the religious experiences of immigrant youth.

“My hope,” she says, “is that the process of exploring these issues will help to define the sort of nation Canada is — and should be.”