Guard our freedoms

  • October 18, 2011

Jesus and His apostles and countless martyrs through the ages were executed for proclaiming their beliefs. Today, in many parts of the world, Christians are still killed for giving voice to religious conviction.

In 21st-century Canada, people of faith seldom face physical threats but, despite Charter guarantees of religious freedom, they risk being hauled in front of a human rights tribunal if a third party is offended by an expression of faith. In these quasi-courts, an accused person can be censured, fined, forced to apologize and ordered to pay their accuser’s legal fees.

Many religious values run counter to society’s lax moral code. Divorce, abortion, immodesty, contraception and living common-law are just a few things deemed immoral in Catholic teaching but are widely accepted in popular culture. In theory, if a priest publicly condemned any of these practices, and someone felt offended, Canada’s murky human rights codes could be used to muzzle the priest.

That is why the Supreme Court of Canada case of William Whatcott is so important. Widely portrayed as a test of laws governing free speech, the Whatcott case is as much a test of religious freedom and the right of faith communities to articulate religious teachings.

Whatcott, a Christian, was found guilty in 2002 by a Saskatchewan tribunal of spreading hateful material about homosexuality, a decision that was overturned by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal before landing in the Supreme Court. Whatcott makes people cringe because his characterization of homosexuality lacks any sense of charity or civility. But the principle that underlies his case — the primacy of free speech in a modern democracy that guarantees religious freedom — must override misgivings about the person making the argument.

That’s not to say free speech is an absolute right. Speech that promotes hatred or incites violence against a person or identifiable group is rightly subject to prosecution under the Criminal  Code. But cases heard by human rights tribunals tend to deal with general ideas, not threats to individuals. The legislation fueling these tribunals is vague and overreaching and is often wielded like a club to deaden free expression.

Religious beliefs are particularly vulnerable in this climate. As it now stands, all it takes to launch a human rights complaint is one person objecting to, say, a moral teaching of the Church. That happened in 2005 to Calgary Bishop Fred Henry, who faced charges after defending traditional marriage.

At the Oct. 12 hearing Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin noted that convoluted legislation can chill legitimate debate. “It seems to me that an ordinary Lutheran pastor should be able to look at the Act and, without needing a Supreme Court scholar, be able to know whether he can say this or that,” she said.

To which we can only add, Amen.

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