Muzzling religion

  • January 3, 2008

{mosimage}Outside a small circle of socially conservative Catholics, few people have heard of Catholic Insight magazine. Yet all of us — Catholic, non-Catholic, religious and nonreligious — should be concerned about its fate as it faces a complaint before the Canadian Human Rights Commission.

The Toronto-based monthly magazine has been accused of offending homosexuals by its tenacious opposition to changes to Canadian law over such issues as same-sex marriage, adoption laws and the reallocation of social benefits. The magazine’s editor, Basilian Father Alphonse de Valk, argues that his magazine strictly adheres to the teachings of the Catholic Church, which condemn homosexual acts while insisting on respect and compassion for — and no unjust discrimination against — homosexuals and lesbians.

Catholic Insight’s preoccupation with what has been called the gay-rights lobby may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Yet it has never crossed the boundary into anything that could be considered hate literature by a reasonable person. At the same time, it has every right, enshrined within the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, to do what it does.

A much bigger media fish has also fallen under the scrutiny of human rights commissions. Maclean’s magazine writer Mark Steyn has written a book lamenting the rise of Islam in Europe. It is a dark, overly alarmist depiction of the growing population of Muslim immigrants to European countries, but — like Catholic Insight — it comes nowhere close to being hate literature. Like Catholic Insight, Steyn is not everyone’s cup of tea, but he has a right to practise his form of journalism in the manner he applies.

Even if we do not agree with all the more combative positions taken by Steyn and Catholic Insight, their right to express their opinions should be defended. Freedom of speech and the press are not frills in a democratic society; they are what make democracy work. Without a vigorous exchange of opinion, commentary and information, engaged citizens do not have the informational tools they need to make reasonable judgments about public policy. The “clash of ideas” in public discourse is what winnows out the nonsense from the commonsense.

Yes, there are limits to free speech. The adage that we do not yell “fire” in a crowded theatre holds true; nor can we legally advocate physical harm or violence against anyone, either individually or as members of a group. We have strong laws against libel and slander.

Yet if we wish to be able to express our own opinions bluntly and honestly, we have to be willing to accept the right of others to do the same. If we do not like what we read or see in the media, we can fight back with our own words.

A fundamental aspect of freedom of religion is freedom to express our beliefs in public. If people like Steyn and Fr. de Valk are muzzled, who will be next? And at what cost?

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