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Editorial: Rights are wronged

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  • May 23, 2019

The executive director of Canadian Physicians for Life spoke for many when she grieved a ruling by Ontario’s highest court that suggested religious rights, in the grand scheme of things, aren’t really a big deal.

“I’m disappointed but not particularly surprised, given the way the courts have ruled on religious freedom in this country,” said Nicole Scheidl.

Her comment came after the Ontario Court of Appeal unanimously upheld a policy that requires doctors who oppose assisted suicide and abortion on religious and moral grounds to nonetheless provide referrals for those services.  The ruling is crushing for thousands of doctors who believe that even incidental participation in ending a life violates their religious principles. They argue sensibly that sending a patient to die at the hands of a colleague is morally equivalent to plunging the syringe themselves.

Even the judges agreed that forcing doctors to act contrary to their faith probably infringes Charter-protected religious rights. Yet they ruled religious rights in this case are trumped in a secular society by patient rights to receive easy access to services that, in many minds, are immoral. The judges called this a “reasonable balance” and “compromise” and suggested doctors who have a problem with this due to religious principles should find another job. 

Reasonable balance? Compromise? Hardly. But no surprise.

The ruling aligns with other government policies and court decisions that regard religious beliefs as the ugly stepsister to secular values. In Ontario, the current issue is doctors’ religious rights. In Quebec, it is the right of public servants to wear clothing or symbols that witness faith. In British Columbia, it is the right of a Christian university to have law students sign a faith-based code of moral conduct. In each of these cases, religious rights were acknowledged by courts or legislators but deemed inferior to some amorphous code of secular values.

Nationally, we had the Canada Summer Jobs fiasco in which religious organizations were required to endorse Liberal Party abortion ideology in order to qualify for their rightful share of public grants. Although the government retreated in response to a public outcry, the tawdry episode pulled back the curtain on Ottawa’s contempt for the right of religion to belong as a legitimate voice in the public square.

The May 14 Ontario ruling on referrals was just the latest setback to religious rights. It means many doctors will be forced into the wrenching choice between staying true to religious principles or to obeying this new regulatory directive to betray their conscience and make referrals. Those who chose religion risk sanctions, which could include loss of their medical licence, a sort of professional martyrdom. 

A Supreme Court appeal seems a logical next step. But that only makes sense if there is a reasonable chance of success. Sadly, given recent history, that’s a big if.

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