Religious freedom in the 2018 spotlight

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  • December 30, 2017
OTTAWA – Religious freedom and conscience rights will continue to be top agenda items for Catholic and other faith groups in 2018 as challenges play out in the courts and in the public arena.

Among the contested items:
  • Government bodies are continuing to exert pressure encroaching on these freedoms: the Trudeau government will require applicants to its 2018 Summer Jobs program to attest to core principles that support abortion and transgenderism in order to qualify.

  • The Law Society of Upper Canada is demanding lawyers sign a document affirming support for a set of beliefs in addition to committing to uphold the rule of law

  • The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) and other health care colleges are forcing effective referral on conscience issues such as abortion and euthanasia. The Ontario Superior Court may release its decision as early as late January in the lawsuit against the CPSO filed by five Ontario doctors, the Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, Canadian Physicians for Life and the Canadian Federation of Catholic Physicians’ Societies. Donato Gugliotta, one of the five doctors, warns that if the CPSO wins, some doctors “will be forced to leave their medical calling or restrict their practice, especially palliative care.”

  • The Supreme Court of Canada will release a decision in 2018 on Trinity Western University’s proposed law school and whether the B.C. and Ontario law societies were right in refusing to accredit future graduates because the private evangelical Christian school has a mandatory community covenant that insists all sexual behaviour be confined to traditional marriage. It will also release a decision on a case involving the associational and communal religious freedom rights of Jehovah’s Witnesses to determine their membership without state interference. Both cases were heard in November.

“It was like religious freedom month in Ottawa,” said Ray Pennings, co-founder and executive vice president of Cardus, a Christian think tank. He noted the “intensity” around religious freedom “is picking up.”

“Historically we’ve taken religious freedom almost for granted, and have reacted to the exceptions, or the violations,” he said, noting the same applies to other foundational freedoms such as freedom of speech and of conscience.

“I think challenges are coming at a time in which these foundation freedoms are no longer fully understood,” he said. “It’s not the exceptions that have to be defended in the public square, it’s the very existence of these core freedoms themselves.”

Cardus and Angus Reid conducted a number of surveys over 2017 on religion and the public square to mark Canada’s 150th birthday.

Pennings said a poll they did in early November showed about 20 per cent of the Canadian population are “hostile to religion” and any kind of religious expression in the public square. The most religious Canadians were the most accepting of other groups, such as Islam, he said.

But Pennings said he believes leadership in many institutions is “disproportionately held by those who are not active in religion.”

He also sees a confusion of defending rights with a defence of “amorphous Canadian values that we’re nice to each other and we’re tolerant.”

“There is a distinction between role of the state its role of protecting freedoms and allowing diversity and pluralism and amorphous Canadians values in which anything that causes anyone to be slightly uncomfortable is somehow automatically beyond the pale,” Pennings said.
Pennings also noted how free speech is now being diminished on university campuses that were once bastions.

“Now somehow it’s celebrated in terms of the silencing of speech instead of the engagement of ideas,” he said. “People are now stepping into role of forcing speech and behaviour that is contrary to conscience.”

“Walls that as recently as a couple of years ago that were thought next to impossible to breach are being knocked down,” Pennings said. “It is a very concerning trend.”

On the positive side, faith groups won a victory of sorts when they pushed back against proposed changes to the Criminal Code in Bill C-51 that would have removed Section 176 protecting religious officials from obstruction and services from disruption.

The reaction by faith communities was so strong, including an intervention by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), that the Justice Committee amended the bill to put back Section 176 with some minor updating of language.

The bill has since passed the House and is now before the Senate.

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