Not so free

  • February 19, 2007
The second anniversary of the infamous Bill C-38, the act that legalized same-sex marriage, will be coming up this year. It hasn’t taken two years for some of the dire predictions about the inevitable erosion to religious freedom to come true.
In the last 18 months, Canadians have witnessed:

  • The bishop of Calgary, Fred Henry, taken to the Alberta Human Rights Tribunal for daring to teach the doctrine of the Catholic Church regarding the true nature of marriage as the permanent conjugal union of a man and a woman. The complaints were settled quietly, with the bishop refusing to withdraw his public statements, but paying hefty legal fees.
  • A Manitoba civil marriage commissioner has his licence revoked for refusing to preside over same-sex marriages because it goes against his conscience. He is now challenging the government in court.
  • A councillor for the city of Kamloops, B.C., argues on television that he believes homosexuality is not the natural condition for the human person and is promptly taken to the provincial human rights tribunal. John Di Cicco settles for a $1,000 fine before going to a hearing to avoid the prohibitive legal costs.

Interestingly, in the 2004 Supreme Court opinion on the reference from the federal government on its plan to legalize same-sex marriage, the court recognized that the government’s plan “may potentially conflict with the right to freedom of religion.” However, the court blithely predicted that such conflicts could be resolved — likely through the courts.

So here we are. The ancient freedom of religion, recognized by constitutional governments worldwide, is rather quickly being eroded, one human rights complaint at a time. Coincidentally, in the larger public realm, there is a growing assertiveness among those who believe the public face of religion should be limited to colourful pageantry and ritual, while restricting its forays into morality to those officially noncontentious issues such as child poverty. They assert that where religious beliefs conflict with so-called “charter values,” religion must give way and recede into private life, effectively neutered of any real impact on human behaviour, relegated to the realm of cranky opinions society tolerates as long as they stay in the closet.

Such opinions are appearing in the most surprising places. In the September issue of Literary Review of Canada, respected public intellectual Janice Gross Stein suggests, in a series of questions, that when institutional religions collide with “charter values,” the state has a responsibility to use its coercive power to slap down the institution, perhaps even revoking its charitable status.

Gross Stein assumes, all evidence to the contrary, that there is some obvious public consensus over what comprises “charter values.” Taken to its obvious conclusions, such thinking can lead to a serious attack not only on the constitutional right to religious freedom, but on the very nature of pluralism itself in Canada. This liberal orthodoxy is every bit as noxious as any other form of aggressive fundamentalism. The slippery slope is here with a vengeance.

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