Getting away with hate crimes


What these Visigoths did was to vandalize and desecrate a holy place.

Ian Hunter

International Women’s Day was observed in Montreal last week by a handful of protesters storming a Roman Catholic cathedral. On a pillar outside Mary Queen of the World Cathedral, protesters spray painted: “Religion–A Trap for Fools.” Inside, they disrupted those who had come to worship by “spray-painting slogans on the altar, turning over flowerpots, sticking sanitary pads–some soiled–to pictures and walls and throwing condoms around the cathedral sanctuary,” said the National Post. A nun who was present said: “They came in yelling things against religion. They said they were claiming the right to abortion and freedom of speech.”

The classic formulation used to be that freedom of speech did not include the right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre; apparently it will now be argued that freedom of speech includes the right to disrupt prayer in churches. And, incidentally, when did vandalism become “speech”?

Father Jean-Pierre Couturier, the vicar, said hymn books were ripped and two altar cloths taken. Seven people, four women and three men, were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly.

The first, understandable, reaction is outrage.

No doubt these “protesters” did not represent women who wanted to celebrate International Women’s Day in Montreal, still less the women of Canada; any more than Marc Lepine, who brutally gunned down women engineering students, represented the men of Montreal, still less all Canadian men. But what happened at Mary Queen of the World Cathedral was a despicable act that, in its hatred of religion, revealed a satanic streak not far below the surface of militant feminism.

Those allegedly responsible for the cathedral outrages committed at least five criminal offences: disrupting a clergyman in the performance of his duties (s. 176); interrupting persons assembled for religious worship (s. 176 (2)); nuisance (s. 180); mischief to property (s. 430); and theft (s. 322). Yet they were not charged with these offences, but rather with unlawful assembly (s. 63). This offence is defined in the code as an assembly of three or more persons who, with intent to carry out a common purpose, cause others in the neighbourhood to fear, on reasonable grounds, that they will disturb the peace tumultuously.

Unlawful assembly is an offence shot through with difficulties of proof. It fairly invites Charter defences. Why would the police lay the charge of unlawful assembly when there appears to be convincing evidence of at least five other, more serious, criminal offences having been committed? Could it be because unlawful assembly, a summary conviction offence, carries the least penalty?

A police spokesman said hate crime charges were not being contemplated because “the elements were not there for charges of that kind.”

The hate crime sections (principally s. 319) make it an offence to communicate statements in a public place inciting hatred against an “identifiable group.” Are Christians generally, or Roman Catholics specifically, not an “identifiable group”? This argument is foreclosed by s. 318 (4), which defines “identifiable group” as “any section of the public distinguished by ... religion.”

So, why no hate crime charges? Well, the police spokesman referred to the statutory exemption: “in good faith, attempting to establish by argument an opinion on a religious subject,” (s. 319 (3)(b)).

Just a minute. How does spray painting slogans, sticking up sanitary pads, overturning flowerpots, ripping hymn books and stealing altar cloths, become an argument about religion?

What these Visigoths did was to vandalize and desecrate a holy place. If that has become freedom of speech, or argument on a religious subject, then night has become day, and Alice has triumphed again. H

ad this been a mosque or a synagogue desecrated, every possibly applicable charge in the Criminal Code would have been laid against the perpetrators. But it was a Christian church and, among the chattering classes, anti-Christian bigotry is de rigueur.

There is one reaction to all this that is not understandable–at least not rationally–and that is the one that the Church will exemplify, forgiveness. Why? Because even greater indignities were heaped upon Him whom the Church glorifies, and His response was “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”




Hunter, Ian. “Getting away with hate crimes.” The National Post (March 14, 2000).

Reprinted with permission of The National Post.


Ian Hunter is professor emeritus in the faculty of law at the University of Western Ontario.

Copyright © 2000 National Post

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