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Freedom of religion is freedom from religion, judge rules.

Senior citizenship judge Michel Simard has forbidden the Canadian Bible Society to distribute free Bibles to new citizens in citizenship courts. His ruling came in a letter, written in May by Judge Simard and citizenship registrar Patricia Birkett. The society is baffled by the news.

"It seems to be a deliberate attack on the church," said society spokesman Barrie Doyle. "What other conclusions can you draw from it?"

Representing the Citizenship Commission of Citizenship and Immigration Canada, Judge Simard wrote that presenting holy books to new citizens may appear as though Canada endorses certain religions over others. Such a distinction is unfair in Canada's multicultural society and would impinge upon the freedom of religion that is guaranteed under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But Mr. Doyle said this argument doesn't make sense. "It seems to fly totally in the face of what they say they want to accomplish," he said. An agreement made in 1998 between the commission and the society enabled any faith group to hand out its holy books in citizenship courts. "Freedom was there already," said Mr. Doyle. "To shut it down and say no one is allowed--that's not freedom for us or for any group."

The Bible Society's tradition of handing out Bibles to new citizens began more than 50 years ago when they were given to newly landed immigrants at Halifax's Pier 21. The organization now distributes about 35,000 Bibles to new Canadians each year.

Rev. Phyllis Nesbitt, the society's national director, said she plans to appeal the court's ruling and denies claims that the Bible is sometimes forced on individuals. Since 1998, the society has been prevented from approaching new citizens and actively distributing Bibles. Instead, people must approach the Bible Society's table and ask for a copy.

The Canadian Bible Society has written a letter to its members, asking them to pray for the reversal of the court's decision and to lobby the government to take action against the change. A letter sent to Judge Simard asking for an explanation of his decision failed to elicit a response.

Amy Sedlezky, with files from Christian Week and the National Post
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Title Annotation:Canadian news
Author:Sedlezky, Amy
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Sep 1, 2004
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