Protect our rights

By 
  • February 1, 2011
The rights of religious freedom and religious conscience are guaranteed in the Charter of Rights and in the United Nations declaration of human rights. Yet increasingly in Canada and in other Western nations these fundamental rights are being disrespected by legislators, tribunals and courts.

So bravo to Regina Archbishop Daniel Bohan for issuing a pastoral letter that challenges government to act skillfully to protect the basic human right of freedom of conscience. His comments were directed at his archdiocese and at Saskatchewan legislators, but they apply right across Canada and beyond.

His letter was prompted by a Saskatchewan Court of Appeal ruling that denied marriage commissioners the right to assert religious conviction as grounds for refusing to perform gay marriages. The court declared that, in this case, “religious freedom must yield to the larger public interest.”

That is a troubling statement not only for those Saskatchewan marriage commissioners who, on religious and moral grounds, oppose gay marriage, but for people in any profession —  health care and education to name just two — whose religious values conflict with so-called public interest in an increasingly secular, anything-goes world.  

As Bohan said, religious freedom is a fundamental human right. “This freedom means that all people are to be immune from coercion . . . so that no one is to be forced to act in a manner contrary to his own beliefs.”

Of course, religious freedom is not absolute. Civil society has a duty to prosecute crimes committed in the name of religion and governments are obligated to maintain the peace. The Church fully supports those rights. But it correctly objects when those rights become a pretext for quashing the legitimate pursuit of religious freedom and conscience as happened in Saskatchewan.

Pope Benedict XVI recently observed that freedom of conscience is inseparable from freedom of religion. He called restrictions on conscience a new threat to the full exercise of religious freedom and  cited as examples Western nations that ardently promote pluralism and tolerance as core values. Those goals are admirable until they are pursued so zealously that civil society starts regarding religion as a destabilizing influence. When that happens, the tolerance that society should extend to citizens of all persuasion is often denied to people of faith who refuse, on conscientious grounds, to disavow their moral beliefs.

That type of discrimination, which has been evident in recent years in various laws and court decisions, often requires Christians to either abandon their moral and religious convictions or lose their job. And that is unjust.

The role of government is to balance the rights of every citizen in a way that grants equal respect for all. It is a perverse miscarriage when the rights of one group are allowed to trump the constitutionally guaranteed rights of another.

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