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Constitutional Privilege and Constituting Pluralism: Religious Freedom in National, Global, and Legal Context

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Lori Beaman argues that religious freedom in Canada and the United States is well established in theory (or myth) but limited in practice, privileging Protestantism in particular and varieties of Christianity in general. Focusing on the treatment of other religions in the courts of the two countries, she defends the hypothesis that these legal systems tend to reinforce the hegemony of Christianity, using this as an implicit model of what constitutes a religion, and thereby maintaining the marginalization and restricting the freedom of other religions. The present article sets Beaman's arguments in a wider global context, exploring the extent to which Christianity does and does not serve as a global standard for religion; and addressing the question of why issues of religious freedom so frequently end up being the subject of legal judgment and political decision. The main conclusions drawn from this global contextualization are that maintenance of some kind of religious hegemony is the rule all across global society, not just in Canada and the United States, and that unfettered freedom of religion or genuine religious pluralization is correspondingly rare, if it exists anywhere. Moreover, it is argued that such limitations, frequently expressed in legal judgments and political decisions, are more or less to be expected because they flow from the peculiar way that religion has been constructed in the modern and global era as both a privileged and privatized, as both an encompassing and marginalized social domain. The article thereby simultaneously reinforces and takes issue with Beaman's position: the modern and global reconstruction of religion invites its infinite pluralization at the same time as it encourages its politicization and practical restriction. Religions act as important resources both for claims to inclusion and for strategies of relative exclusion.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Ottawa, Canada

Publication date: 2003-09-01

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