Freedom of Religion & Conscience: What’s the Connection?

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freedom of religion   conscience  what s the connection

An interview with Dr. Barry W. Bussey

We’re excited to do something a little bit different in this blog post. Today we’re talking to Dr. Barry W. Bussey about freedom of religion and conscience. These two matters have been some of the most important to Barry throughout his legal career, including during his 10-year tenure at CCCC, which he completed in November 2021. We wanted to hear his thoughts and reflections about them as he leaves CCCC.  

Many of our readers will know Barry well. But for those who don’t, Barry hails from Newfoundland, and among many other things, has served as a pastor, worked as a lawyer in private practice, ran for political office, directed public affairs for a church denomination, worked in Washington, D.C. representing the International Religious Liberty Association, and served as CCCC Director of Legal Affairs. In 2019 Barry earned his Ph.D. in law from Leiden University. He has co-edited or edited four books on law and religion and has published a growing number of law review articles.

Our Interview

Deina: Looking at your work over the course of your 10 years at CCCC your focus on religious freedom is very clear. And it seems there are two key elements of religious freedom that have captured your attention: religion as a “prototypical freedom” and the relationship between freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.

Can you explain what you mean by religion as a “prototypical freedom”?

Barry: Religious freedom is foundational: it sets the stage for the other freedoms we enjoy in liberal democracies, like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, or freedom of association. Looking back specifically to the religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we see they ultimately led to the realization that belief could not be forced or compelled without bloody consequences. This, in turn, contributed to a political toleration which recognized that the state is not supreme; individual conscience or faith had to be accommodated for the greater good. In this sense, freedom of religion “blazed the path” that led to the development of other human rights. Logically, this also means that if we neglect freedom of religion and conscience, we undermine all other civil liberties.

“…conscience represents an even deeper, inner principle which is accessible to all, regardless of their faith or lack of faith.”

Deina: Speaking of other civil liberties, can you tell us how freedom of religion and conscience interact? And why that matters? What difference does it make?

Barry: The two concepts are often used interchangeably, but in my view, conscience underlies religion, in the sense that conscience represents an even deeper, inner principle which is accessible to all, regardless of their faith or lack of faith. It is, at its heart, the individual’s understanding of the truth and his responsibility to that truth. I would say that, while not all conscience claims may be religious in nature, any appeal to religious freedom must be grounded upon freedom of conscience. This is because religion may be seen as a public or communal manifestation of private, conscientious convictions regarding morality and one’s individual obligation to God.

Deina: What is it about these two topics – religious freedom and conscience – that have attracted your attention?

Barry: From an early age growing up in Newfoundland I was aware of the differences of religion. I lived in an area that was overwhelmingly Anglican, as was my family. But occasionally an ‘outlier’ from the Pentecostal, Catholic, or Salvation Army communities would enter my world. This happened when I went to school and saw that not everyone shared my faith. That fascinated me and still does. Why so many different beliefs or doctrines? Then later, my own family changed denominations and suddenly I was among the ‘outliers.’ Again, it was a time for evaluation – what motivates people to stand out and be different?

“Would I be so committed to my faith, my integrity that I would lay all things down to remain true?”

Later I became interested in conscientious objectors during war. I went on a research project interviewing some twenty-five to thirty men who refused to bear arms during World War II. I tried to live in their world at the time as they shared with me their experiences. These experiences included being ostracized from family and friends, loss of employment (no one wanted a “coward” in their employ), being put in public work camps around Canada at one-half the pay given to the regular conscripts. Some described their fellow conscientious objectors having nervous breakdowns out of anxiety for their spouses and children, who were left on the farm to fend for themselves. Yet, despite it all, they had no regrets that they had followed their consciences. Hearing their stories made an impact on me. Would I be so committed to my faith, my integrity that I would lay all things down to remain true? Serious questions. They remain relevant today.

Deina: What do you see as the most significant challenge to these freedoms?

Barry: In the last ten years we have seen the culmination of various trends which began after the last World War and which are having a dramatic impact on conscience. Most people seem to be unaware of the gigantic legal revolution against the accommodation of religion. It is, in my view, the settled opinion of most academics, the media, political elites and, unfortunately, the legal profession and judiciary that conscience and religion are no longer worthy of accommodation. That is a sea change from what we once understood in constitutional liberal democracies. We once held the view that we are to accommodate religious and conscientious belief and practices, as I mentioned earlier. We were willing to be inconvenienced to allow a person to maintain their integrity. That is now gone.

Deina: Why do you think that is?

Barry: I think it is due to a very cynical conception of the world as a matter of power. He who has the power gets to run his own show. We have lost the concepts of virtue. The cardinal virtues, the Greeks told us, were prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. The Christian church said, ‘yes, those are good, but we also need faith, hope and love.’

Immanuel Kant, the German philosopher, said, “Virtue is the moral strength of the will in obeying the dictates of duty.” Historically, we had a cultural understanding of our duty to our God, to our family, and to our community. The Greeks told us that we simply cannot perform a function or a skill (the “techne”) without knowing the purpose (“telos”) of why we are doing it. We have lost that second part of knowing the purpose. We are only interested in the function: getting things done, satisfying the senses, without considering the bigger meaning of things – in part, I suspect, because doing so means recognizing not only a higher purpose but a Higher Power.

The culmination of this process in the legal profession came with the TWU law school cases. It was totally disheartening to see my own legal profession be so oblivious of their own history that they could not see the “telos” in that debate. There was no understanding of TWU’s duty to the moral virtues for which it was created in the first place. They could only see the function of a law school (educating lawyers) and not the purpose of producing virtuous lawyers who understood and carried out their duty. Conscience, religion, duty, all was rejected in the pursuit of power. Power is now the currency within which we operate, and quite frankly we see it more and more everyday.

“It will be important to establish a respectful and informed framework to ensure we’re not having conversations about power, but about purpose.”

Deina: Looking at some of those reasons, what do you think should be done in response?

Barry: There are a number of things that I think should be done to effectively respond to these underlying issues. One is to advocate, educate, and potentially litigate as necessary in order to defend the equal dignity and worth of all Canadians. That could include academic work, like my own past book projects (The Inherence of Human Dignity (2021), The Status of Religion and the Public Benefit in Charity Law (2020), Religion, Liberty and the Jurisdictional Limits of Law (2017)), editorials and other columns, seminars; developing and sharing resources to equip Canadians to understand and protect their rights and freedoms and to engage in meaningful conversations with political leaders. It will be important to establish a respectful and informed framework to ensure we’re not having conversations about power, but about purpose.

Deina: Thanks, Barry, for taking the time to talk with us today! We appreciate your insight into the interplay between religion and conscience, and for the very important reminder to always keep the end in mind; of knowing the purpose that underlies the function.

Ways to Engage

Wondering how you can engage in some of the issues raised by Barry? Check out our recent blog post, Advocating for Legal/Policy Changes, that sets out a framework to help you engage wisely.

The content provided in this blog is for general information purposes and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Every organization’s circumstances are unique. Before acting on the basis of information contained in this blog, readers should consult with a qualified lawyer for advice specific to their situation.

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