Reasonableness, understanding of religion missed by rights tribunals

  • June 27, 2008

{mosimage}OTTAWA - An Alberta Human Rights Commission panel has ordered a former Christian youth pastor to apologize in the pages of the Red Deer Advocate for a strongly worded 2002 letter to the editor he wrote opposing the homosexual activist agenda.

In a May 30 “decision on remedy,” commission panelist Lori Andreachuk also ordered Stephen Boissoin, 41, to request the newspaper publish her judgment against him. She has also imposed a lifetime ban on ever speaking or writing “disparagingly” about homosexuals again: in the media, on the Internet, in public speaking engagements or in e-mails. She has also ordered him to take down any “disparaging” remarks from his web site.

She also ordered he pay complainant Darren Lund $5,000 for “pain and suffering” even though Lund is not a member of the homosexual community. He must also pay one of Lund’s witnesses up to $2,000 for her expenses.

Catholic Civil Rights League president Phil Horgan compared the forced apology to a “re-education program” one might find in a totalitarian state. He called Andreachuk’s decision “highly problematic,” “intrusive” and “frankly unworkable.”

“What is meant by ‘disparaging’?” asked Calgary Bishop Fred Henry, who faced two 2005 human rights complaints for defending traditional marriage. “This is tantamount to ruling out honest debate and a plurality of views in the public sphere lest someone be offended by a differing viewpoint.

“This decision constitutes a further impoverishment and privatization of morality. It reduces all moral claims to narrow claims of ‘justice,’ ” Henry wrote in an open letter to Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, published in the June 23 Western Catholic Reporter (for full text, see Page 23).

Henry noted how people are forgetting to talk in terms of virtue, or doing God’s will, or duty, or natural law or keeping the Commandments.

“Instead we must follow the lead of a narrow bunch of politically appointed commissioners.”

Evangelical Fellowship of Canada legal counsel and policy advisor Don Hutchinson called the Boissoin decision “ridiculous,” especially the lifetime ban, and said the ruling is “begging for a court to overrule the adjudicator.”

Boissoin stands by every word he wrote, even though he has been branded a hate-monger in the front pages of his local paper and said he has been refused the opportunity to effectively rebut accusations against him.

“I will never apologize,” Boissoin said. “The only way I will pay the money is if it prevents me from appealing.”

But Boissoin has been left penniless by the six-year legal battle. While the mainstream media have focused on the high-profile freedom of the press cases involving Maclean’s magazine and Mark Steyn and the former Western Standard and Ezra Levant, the Boissoin ruling is one of many human rights commission decisions adversely affecting religious freedom. Most of the respondents in these cases lack the resources for high-priced lawyers.

Even though some previous rulings have been overturned by higher courts, the winner is left with hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees. In most jurisdictions, the commissions pay the complainants costs.

“It’s the process which acts as a chill on engaging robust discussion of ideas, even from a natural law perspective,” Horgan said.

“Each judgment emanating out of our various human rights commissions seems to be more brazen and bizarre than the one that preceded it,” said Henry, who has spoken at a Boissoin fund-raiser. “The tribunal effectively stripped Boissoin of his right to freedom of speech.”

Henry also criticized a recent Saskatchewan Human Rights Tribunal decision against marriage commissioner Orville Nichols, who was recently fined $2,500 for refusing to officiate at a same-sex wedding.

“The conflict between social pressure and the demands of right conscience can lead to the dilemma of either abandoning a profession or of compromising one’s convictions,” Henry said. He urged acknowledgment of the right of conscientious objection.

Boissoin had to resign his job ministering to at-risk youth because of the adverse publicity his case brought to the Christian charity that employed him.

“What human rights commissions are doing in their lack of understanding of basic religious concepts is failing to accommodate religious belief on matters of public policy and in the public square,” said Hutchinson. “There is a need for reasonableness and understanding of legal precedent at the basic human rights commission level. These are things that seem to be lacking in a number of recent decisions.”

A recent Ontario Human Rights Tribunal decision struck down Christian Horizon’s morality code as discriminatory against an employee who discovered she was lesbian five years after agreeing to the charity’s Christian behaviour standards.

The Supreme Court’s Chamberlain decision in 2002 “redefined the word ‘secular’ to include those who were expressing a religiously informed opinion,” Hutchinson said. In the 2004 Amselem decision, the court ruled “there’s a duty to accommodate religious practices that have a strong connection with an individual’s strong religious belief.”

The Saskatchewan Court of Appeal overturned a human rights commission ruling that Hugh Owen’s ads in a newspaper citing anti-homosexual Bible verses constituted hate speech.

Hutchinson said he is extremely concerned about the direction of the recent decisions before human rights commissions and tribunals because they seem to stress what he called “secular pluralism” that restricts public participation to “finding the lowest common denominator for agreed upon expression.”

Andreachuk’s Boissoin decision ruled “the publication’s exposure of homosexuals to hatred and contempt trumps the freedom of speech afforded in the Charter.” In other words, provincial human rights legislation, in her view, trumps the enumerated rights in the Canadian Constitution’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

“The secularist ideology refuses to acknowledge freedom of conscience and of religion as a primary and inalienable right of the human person,” Henry said.

Not all news from the human rights commission front is bad, however. Some pro-life groups have been successful through filing complaints. A pro-life group at Capilano College in British Columbia forced the student union to grant it recognition in an agreement reached after it filed the complaint.

Hamilton Right to Life filed a human rights complaint against the City of Hamilton, Ont., for taking down Life Canada billboard and transit ads. The city has since revised its rules against allowing religious and advocacy ads.

Hutchinson said the rules governing human rights commissions mean anyone claiming discrimination on an identified ground, which includes religion, can engage in the process.

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