TORONTO - Ontario has reversed course on plans to let Muslims use Islamic sharia law to settle family disputes, and will now ban religious-based arbitration, including Jewish ones, altogether, provincial officials said.
The province said it would scrap all religious-based dispute settlements on issues such as child custody and divorce, prompting elation from critics of the sharia proposals, and dismay from groups that have used religious arbitration in the past.
"I'm very excited, very happy," said Homa Arjamond, co-chair of the No Religious Arbitration Coalition. "It is a victory for women's rights, for children's rights, for human rights."
The coalition had argued that sharia - a code of law based primarily on the Koran as well as the teachings of the Prophet Mohammad - gives women and children fewer rights than men, and it had organized protest rallies in Toronto, in other Canadian cities and in Europe to push for a ban.
Backed last year
Ontario and other Canadian provinces have long allowed the use of arbitrators in civil disputes to help reduce the backlog in the courts, and Ontario allowed religious-based settlements on some family issues under its 1991 Arbitration Act.
A report commissioned by the provincial government last year backed the idea of also allowing the use of sharia in such arbitration, providing both parties agreed, and provided limits and oversight mechanisms were also put in place.
Accepting these recommendations would have made Ontario one of the first jurisdictions outside the Muslim world to allow sharia.
The government considered the report's recommendations for several months, and decided this weekend that there would be "one law for all Ontarians," a spokesman for premier Dalton McGuinty said, confirming comments McGuinty made on Sunday.
But the province's attempt to end debate on the proposal drew criticism from another religious community that has used similar arbitration for the last 15 years.
"What we're doing here is singling out faith-based arbitration and saying because they are faith-based, they can't possibly be in accordance with Canadian natural justice principles," said Steven Schulman Ontario director of the Canadian Jewish Council.
"And that's simply wrong. That's a knee-jerk reaction."
Wahida Valiante, vice-president of the Canadian Islamic Congress, said it was unreasonable to take religious-based tribunals away from other groups rather than allowing Muslims to use the service.
"The decision to completely not allow it is quite surprising," she said. "This solution is really not constructive."