In Canadian society, there is a common misconception that the public sphere by necessity excludes religion. The separation of church and state, the idea goes, demands that public money (ie, government money) should not be directed to religious institutions. Religion has no official place in a secular society.

The legal reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The separation of church and state, after all, is an American ideal (it exists nowhere in the Canadian constitution). In fact, Canadian law specifically declares that our understanding of a “secular society” is meant to include religion. At least that’s what Iain T. Benson (lawyer, writer and lecturer; senior associate counsel of Miller Thomson LLP; and professor of law, University of the Free State, South Africa) argues in his recent article “‘Public schools’ should not mean ‘atheist schools'”.

Too often we fall into a secularistic understanding in which the public sphere is described as “secular,” meaning “non-religious,” but this fails to pass the legal, practical or logical tests once we recognize that the public sphere is made up of religious and non-religious citizens.

Nothing in our theories or history should support turning religious believers and their communities into second-class citizens when it comes to public involvement and funding. In short, atheism and agnosticism ought not to be favoured public claimants in Canada any longer.

Legally, we are the first country in the world to have its highest court determine that our understanding of “secular” is that the public sphere includes religion and does not exclude it.

The article is fascinating and well worth a read for anyone with an interest on the subject of Canadian religion (or law and the freedom of religion, for that matter). Aside from a big-picture discussion of the place of religion in secular society, Benson deals in particular with the subject of government funding of religiously affiliated schools – an issue that has been a bit more visible as of late since a Quebec court criticized the province for forbidding a private Catholic school from teaching a required ethics course from a religious perspective.