Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Chipping away at freedom of religion

Like everyone else, members of Canada's political establishment are making a great show of respect for the passing of Pope John Paul II. But even as they are doing so, the forced ecularization of Canadian society is continuing apace.

Consider, for instance, the plight of Fred Henry, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Calgary, who is being hauled before the Alberta Human Rights Commission for arguing against same-sex marriage in a letter he sent to his flock in January.

Bishop Henry's case is being pursued under Alberta's Human Rights Code. But it is not hard to imagine religious speech being chilled across the country.


Last year, when Parliament was debating former MP Svend Robinson's private
member's bill -- C-250 -- to add sexual orientation to the list of traits protected against hate speech, many religious organizations warned such a law would limit the right of priests, rabbis and imams to recite their faiths' teachings that homosexuality is a sin.

They were scoffed at, and their concerns dismissed as paranoia -- especially since the legislation was drafted in a way that appeared to protect religious speech.

Even though the law clearly makes it a criminal offence to "communicate statements in any public place" -- presumably including houses of worship -- that would "wilfully promote hatred against any identifiable group," the faithful were reassured the bill would never impinge their right to believe or pontificate as they wished.

Calgary Herald columnist Naomi Lakritz scoffed at the "Christian fundamentalists" she saw pushing opposition to the legislation. "Nobody will be prosecuted for expressing disapproval of homosexual behaviour," she wrote. "People are free to say that they find such behaviour repulsive. They are free to cite the Bible as much as they like."

More telling was her contradictory caveat in the next paragraph, warning that "one's right to freedom of speech ends where another person's right not to be treated as inferior and undesirable because of race, religion or sexual orientation begins."

Svend Robinson himself chimed in: "It has been suggested that this bill might in some way threaten freedom of speech or lead to the banning of the Bible or other religious texts. Nothing could be further from the truth."

His bill's purpose? Only to "save lives" threatened by gay-bashing attacks.

Similar assurances have been made to quiet concerns that the current same-sex marriage bill will compel churches to marry gay and lesbian couples.

At House of Commons justice committee hearings in February, John Fisher, executive director of the gay-rights group EGALE, insisted religious Canadians had nothing to fear. "The rules set by particular faiths are protected by freedom of religion."

More ominously, Ontario's Human Rights Commissioner told the committee "it would still be discrimination" for churches and other religious institutions to refuse to marry gays. "But it would be lawful discrimination."

How is that ominous?

Can you imagine a human rights commission or federal court tolerating for long even "lawful" discrimination? The prohibition against same-sex marriage itself has been lawful for 100 years. Has that stopped Mr. Norton or judges from persistently chipping away at it?

Admittedly, in its opinion on Ottawa's recent gay marriage reference, the Supreme Court ruled that "state compulsion on religious officials to perform same-sex marriages contrary to their religious beliefs would violate the guarantee of freedom of religion." But would that protect Bishop Henry in speaking out against homosexuality, or merely keep Ottawa from forcing him
to perform gay marriages?

Besides, this was an opinion in a reference. The SCC might well decide differently when an actual case comes before it. And in any case, the court has been known to change its mind on gay rights. In the mid-1990s, it ruled that Parliament had the right to award benefits unevenly to different family groupings -- including heterosexual couples versus gay ones -- depending on
the legislative goals it was trying to achieve. Less than five years later, it ruled its own earlier distinction was anathema to an equal, democratic society.

Yes, I know, our very own Prime Minister, Paul Martin, has insisted that if a court were "going to force ... churches, synagogues, mosques or temples to redefine marriage in a way that that particular religion did not want to, then I would use the notwithstanding clause" to protect freedom of religion.


But does anyone really believe he has that kind of courage?

Besides, prime ministers change. The one who replaces Mr. Martin could well be less willing even to promise to protect freedom of conscience.

Nor is Bishop Henry the only religious figure who has been put upon for his stance against gay marriage.

St. Simon's Anglican parish, in the lush little North Shore community of Deep Cove, across Burrard Inlet from Vancouver, has been evicted from its church building by the Diocese of New Westminster for opposing the diocese's decree that Vancouver-area Anglican churches must bless same-sex unions.

The Catholic service club, the Knights of Columbus, in Port Coquitlam, B.C., is being hauled before provincial human rights inquisitors for refusing to rent their hall to a lesbian wedding reception.

Nor does the list stop there.

I am not opposed to same-sex marriage. I am also not naive enough to believe official reassurances that those of faith who oppose same-sex marriage will have their right to dissent protected by lawmakers and the courts.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 72
Lorne GunterĀ©
(This editorial first ran in the National Post, April 4, 2005, p. A18.)
Reprinted by permission.