TORONTO – The premier of Ontario said Sunday that he won't let his province become the first Western government to allow the use of Islamic law to settle family disputes and that he would move to ban all religious arbitration.
Ontario's provincial government has been reviewing a report recommending that Shariah (search), or Islamic law, be allowed to settle family disputes like divorce and had said it would soon make a decision.
"There will be no Shariah law in Ontario. There will be no religious arbitration in Ontario. There will be one law for all Ontarians," Premier Dalton McGuinty (search) told The Canadian Press.
The proposal to let Ontario residents use Islamic law for settling family disputes drew protests Thursday in Canada and at some of its diplomatic sites in Europe.
Ontario, the most populous province in Canada, has allowed Catholic and Jewish faith-based tribunals to settle family law matters on a voluntary basis since 1991. The practice got little attention until Muslim leaders demanded the same rights.
Officials had to decide whether to exclude one religion, or whether to scrap the religious family courts altogether.
McGuinty said such courts "threaten our common ground," and promised his Liberal government would introduce legislation as soon as possible to outlaw them in Ontario.
"Ontarians will always have the right to seek advice from anyone in matters of family law, including religious advice," he said. "But no longer will religious arbitration be deciding matters of family law."
A representative from Ontario's Jewish community expressed disappointment and shock over McGuinty's decision.
"We're stunned," said Joel Richler, Ontario region chairman of the Canadian Jewish Congress (search). "At the very least, we would have thought the government would have consulted with us before taking away what we've had for so many years."
Homa Arjomand, a women's rights activist, was elated.
"I think our voice got heard loud and clear, and I thank the government for coming out with no faith-based arbitration's," Arjomand said. "Oh, I am so happy. That was the best news I have ever heard for the past five years."
Just hours before McGuinty's announcement, a group including prominent Canadian author Margaret Atwood (search) and actress Shirley Douglas (search) issued an open letter to the premier on behalf of the No Religious Arbitration Coalition (search).
Shariah comes from several sources including the Koran, the Muslim holy book, and it governs every aspect of life. Under most interpretations, Islamic law gives men more rights than women in matters of inheritance, divorce and child custody.