Joanne McGarry is Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada.

Gauging the rights of religious institutes

Religious and conscientious freedom is at the heart of several ongoing news stories. Some of the stories involve institutions and others individuals, but they all raise the troubling spectre that these rights may exist more in theory than in practice.

    Standing up where apathy won’t

    Now that the annual costume-and-sugar festival called Halloween has passed, I will comment on what I believe is a new low reached this year in the sale of adult Halloween costumes.

      Quebec’s charter excludes most outsiders

      The Quebec government’s intention to draft a Charter of Quebec Values was announced last year, but many details of how the charter will impact religious freedom were only leaked to the press in August. Reportedly, the legislation would ban most religious symbols from public institutions, and public employees would not be permitted to wear religious items such as hijabs, kippas, turbans and “ostentatious crucifixes.”

        Quebec prayer ruling could have nationwide effect

        The Quebec Court of Appeal recently overturned a provincial human rights commission ruling regarding the opening prayer at Saguenay City Council. The commission had ruled that the mayor, Jean Tremblay, must cease saying the opening prayer and also pay $30,000 in damages to the complainant. The court, however, said the tribunal got it wrong and that the opening prayer did not significantly affect the state’s “religious neutrality” and should therefore be allowed.

          Whatcott case leaves troubling concerns

          The recent Supreme Court of Canada decision in the case of anti-gay advocate Bill Whatcott provided troubling answers to some questions concerning free speech but improved the language of a provincial human rights code and slightly raised the bar for future cases.

            University law school raises questions about religious freedom

            When it become known in January that Trinity Western University (TWU) was seeking accreditation for its law school, newspaper columns and letters pages almost immediately erupted with opinions about why the school should, or should not, be trusted to train lawyers.

              Catholics Come Home sparks debate, interest

              Among the most ambitious media outreach programs in recent years involving religion is Catholics Come Home (CCH), an independent, U.S.-based, non-profit Catholic apostolate. Founded in the late 1990s, it creates media messages to invite lapsed Catholics back to church and to inspire and educate others, including non-Catholics, in religious knowledge in keeping with the magisterium.

              After 33 American campaigns, CCH has begun its first Canadian outreach, in the dioceses of Vancouver and Victoria. While the campaign is bigger than TV advertising — parish welcoming committees, special events and other outreach initiatives are also important — the media component tends to attract the most attention.

              Such was the case in The Globe and Mail on Jan. 3. In a column titled “Does Catholics Come Home campaign have a prayer?”, Gary Mason gave his assessment of the “controversial” program, complete with lots of detail about his own lapse from Catholicism and his view of what the Catholics Come Home program is likely, or unlikely, to achieve.

              Citing Archbishop Michael Miller’s estimate that a quarter million Catholics in the archdiocese are no longer practising their faith, Mason rather cynically estimated that if the campaign enticed even 10 per cent of them back, “that’s nearly 25,000 new(ish) parishioners and a far heavier collection plate. And you’d certainly have to think that declining revenue is playing some sort of role in this membership drive.”

              In fairness, the article also included some thoughtful insights on why church attendance is down, and not only (or even principally) in the Catholic Church, including lack of interest, lack of time, a perception that the Church needs to get with the times, teachings on sexuality that many do not accept or find difficult, and the sex abuse scandal. Of course many people raised in the mainstream Protestant churches have also stopped attending. The only difference I’ve ever noticed is that most of them continue to identify themselves loosely with the tradition in which they were raised.

              I’ve visited the Catholics Come Home web site and viewed the TV spots, which discuss charitable and educational works, sacramental life and community life. I think the only people who would regard the package as controversial are those who regard the Church itself as controversial. Evangelization is part of what Christianity is about. While there will always be legitimate questions about one outreach program or another, there’s no getting around the fact that attempting to share the Good News is a good and necessary thing, provided it’s done with respect and courtesy.

              The CCH cites American evidence to demonstrate the need for outreach, but the data is comparable to Canada. No more than a quarter of adult Catholics attend Mass weekly. The number of Americans identifying themselves as “unaffiliated” with a religious tradition continues to increase dramatically, and now makes up more than 15 per cent of the population.

              Despite the growth of the Internet and social media, television continues to consume a huge proportion of our entertainment time, with the average Canadian household tuning in for 24 to 26 hours a week. Even though youth spend more time glued to their iPads or computer screens, they are often using them to watch television shows.

              CCH founder Tom Peterson is kinder than many people about media coverage of the program, and religion in general. According to the B.C. Catholic, he says that despite some negative reporting, most of the media realize the good work of the Church in the world.

              “We can’t take the credit, but we can thank the Holy Spirit, for starting hospitals and universities, and for being the largest charitable organization on the planet.”

              He added that he enjoyed talking with the Canadian media about the Vancouver initiative when he was visiting in October, stating that Canadian journalists showed respect and kindness even when asking tough questions. Local coverage of the CCH program included criticisms, but has been generally well-balanced.

              Advertising on television or elsewhere is only a tool. The content of any ad is unlikely to sway people who have already been well and truly “turned off” by an institution or product. For the sizeable group who have drifted away from Church for no particular reason, however, this type of program may be effective in re-igniting interest.

              The CCH claims their program results in attendance bumps of 10 to 18 per cent. Whether these gains are sustainable is more difficult to document. But the initial surge of interest sparked by the CCH program is important and shouldn’t be discounted.

              (McGarry is Executive Director of the Catholic Civil Rights League of Canada.)

               

                Where’s the consistency?

                A one-month suspension given to a Montreal radio host who allowed, or perhaps tacitly encouraged, anti-Semitic commentary on his phone-in show has provoked considerable debate as to whether the punishment is in proportion to the breach of ethics.

                Jacques Fabi has been on the air for 35 years and is described as “king of the night” at his midnight to 5:30 a.m. phone-in show on 98.5 FM. On Nov. 22, a caller identifying herself as Maria launched into a hate-filled rant against Jews and Israel, even including some praise for the Holocaust. Of concern is not just that the caller got through the station’s normal screening procedures, but also that she was not stopped immediately by Fabi, who instead added a few comments of his own, including that despite freedom of expression, “it is very difficult to make any negative comments about Jews.”

                He allowed the conversation to go on for some time and at the end politely thanked the contributor for her call. In his subsequent apology, portions of which were printed in the National Post, Fabi said he would never endorse the caller’s “anti-Semitic comments” nor trivialize the Holocaust.

                “For 35 years I have hosted a nighttime call-in segment and it is not the first time that a listener has tried to use it as a vehicle for communicating unacceptable messages,” he said. “I have always reacted quickly in order to avert these situations. Unfortunately, I did not last week.”

                For some people, the apology should have been enough, but for others the suspension, as well as the censure of his peers, is appropriate. I agree with the suspension, since it underlines the importance of responsibility on the part of those who control the use of broadcasting outlets. This is not the “wild west” of the Internet, where technically it is almost impossible to regulate web sites operated by the hateful and the twisted. The fact that people are free to hold opinions doesn’t mean that a radio station is obliged to provide a platform for them.

                With that said, it would be nice to see some consistency in standards. Just a few weeks before the Montreal incident, John Tory’s suppertime drive-home show onToronto’s NewsTalk 1010 included, during panel conversation, a joke by panelist Gail Vaz-Oxlade about the Pope and masturbation. I know of at least a dozen e-mails being sent to the station about the remark. Many were unanswered. Of those that were, the brief apology was of the “just a joke” and “no offence intended” variety.

                I’m not suggesting that a sick joke about a public figure is on the same level as vile anti-Semitism, but for some people the “joking remark” about the Pope was almost as offensive, and it was at a time of day when many more people were likely to hear it.

                Over the years, the Catholic Civil Rights League has protested dozens of incidents of anti-Catholic content on radio and television, including a Jesus look-alike contest at Eastertime and a Christmas special that portrayed the Virgin Mary as, shall we say, a party girl. While there have been a few apologies from individual stations, I’m not aware of a single case where the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council has upheld a complaint about anti- Catholic content, especially if there was any sort of humourous context involved. That is why, for many believers, the dial often goes to the “off” position.

                The Montreal episode is a reminder that action from the station is as important as action by the listener.

                ***

                In response to the annual barrage of Christmas and “holiday” advertising, the American Family Association is compiling its “Naughty or Nice List” for 2012. It singles out major North American retailers that avoid using or ban the term Christmas in their advertising, as well as identifying those that still use it.

                I understand the reasoning behind this but still I wonder about the fairness of singling out retailers for something that is widespread and to which we all contribute by accepting the “bigger every year” commercialization of Christmas. While we’re free to “report” stores that are reluctant to use “Christmas” in advertising and in-store greetings, I have always found the simpler solution is to wish a Merry Christmas to those we buy from, but also to happily accept any and all greetings in the spirit in which they’re intended.

                  Speech is not so free on our campuses

                  A new study by the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedom (JCCF) found that many Canadian university campuses may embrace the principle of free speech but in practice give it a rough ride.

                  Some campuses received an “A” for their written policies and statements about free speech, but a far lower grade for implementing those policies and settling disputes. To anyone who has watched the treatment of university pro-life clubs in the past decade or so, the findings were not surprising but only confirmed the extent of the problem and pointed to where it could lead.

                  The JCCF’s Campus Freedom Index rated the policies of university administrations and student unions based on whether they supported and protected free speech on campus. The study also reviewed human rights policies and anti-discrimination policies to determine if they were being used to censor politically incorrect speech. Higher grades went to universities that had a clear anti-disruption policy that prohibited students and others from blocking, obstructing, suppressing or interrupting speech with which they disagree. The Index also examined policies governing the imposition of “security fees” as a means to discourage groups from inviting controversial or unpopular speakers to campus.

                  Among incidents with religious overtones, members of Carleton University’s pro-life club were arrested, handcuffed and charged with “trespassing” for attempting to express their views in a high-traffic area on campus. Simon Fraser University and the University of Calgary were both censured in the report for condoning the physical obstruction of pro-life displays on school property after campus security watched passively as the peaceful expression of opinion was made meaningless by obstructers using sheets and blankets to cover the message. The University of Western Ontario, University of Toronto and Carleton demanded that campus pro-life clubs confine their messages to isolated rooms, a restriction not placed on any other campus club, while St. Mary’s University forced the cancelation of a pro-life lecture by failing to provide adequate security to allow listeners to hear the presentation.

                  The survey also studied university policies on Israel Apartheid and inviting controversial political speakers on campus. In a National Post report on the findings, study co-author John Carpay, president of JCCF, said that while pro-life groups seem to be a “current target” on campus, in future it could be some other group that doesn’t fit with the popular view of the day.

                  An incident not included in the study suggests that day may be closer than we think. As reported in the Oct. 28 issue of The Catholic Register, a Catholic chaplaincy program at Brock University has faced harassment due to ties to the Sodalit movement, which a women’s studies professor claimed was affiliated with “far right” and “cult-like” Catholic organizations in Peru. Despite a ruling from Brock’s administration that the accusations are unfounded and the relationship between the university and SEA has been beneficial to the university, incidents of harassment continued, including an episode where a fundraising event was shut down by hecklers. The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal subsequently dismissed a claim of religious discrimination against the professor, ruling that her actions fell within the realm of academic freedom. (The CCRL had an advisory role in the case at the request of one of the volunteer chaplains.)

                  The tribunal’s assertion that the professor’s actions do not constitute religious discrimination is certainly arguable; harassment took place and it’s impossible to see any basis for it other than religious affiliation. Some of the academics who opposed the chaplaincy initiative stated their case more plainly when they declared point-blank at a rally in 2011 that they don’t want organizations with religious ties offering any work programs or volunteer experiences on campus.

                  Given the very strong relationship between religious belief and philanthropy, it’s hard to imagine where those volunteer opportunities will come from if organizations with religious ties are excluded. We have been witnessing an ongoing marginalization of religion in public life for several decades, so it’s quite possible that religious groups will be deemed to no longer fit with popular notions of who belongs on campus. Only a vigourous defence of campus free speech now — including the right to express ideas Catholics may dislike — will help prevent that from happening.

                    Christians resigned to media bias

                    This is a column about what happens (or doesn’t happen) when Canada’s publicly funded broadcaster mocks Jesus Christ on prime time TV and a no-name amateur filmmaker mocks Mohammad on the Internet.

                    Throughout September, deadly violence erupted in many parts of the world as groups of Muslims attacked American embassies and other installations after a low-budget video, called The Innocence of Muslims and posted on YouTube, depicted the Prophet Mohammad as a fool and a sexual deviant. In Pakistan, at least two six-figure bounties have been offered, one by a current government official and the other by a former one, to be paid upon the death of the filmmaker. The filmmaker himself is currently being held in a Los Angeles detention centre, reportedly for parole violations.

                    In Pakistan, at least 23 protesters have been killed. There were also deaths in several other Muslim countries. The violence coincided with an attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four people, including the U.S. ambassador.

                    Meanwhile, on Sept. 28 the CBC program This Hour has 22 Minutes broadcast a skit based on Leonardo Da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper. It used the tableau as a backdrop to satirize recent news reports of writings on a papyrus fragment that allude to a wife of Jesus. (The fragment is of disputed origin and there is certainly no agreement among scholars that it refers to Jesus Christ.) In the skit, a woman identified as Jesus’ wife is shown continually disrupting the Last Supper, complaining that Jesus is constantly carousing with the boys and drinking too much wine. In a particularly offensive segment, the familiar words of the consecration (“This is my blood…”) are interrupted when the Jesus figure complains: “Ellen, do you mind, I’m kind of in the middle of something.”

                    Although both are offensive, the two videos are different in many respects. But perhaps the most striking difference was not the video content itself but in the respective response from Muslims and Christians. In the first case, we saw violence that we would normally expect only in conditions of war or civil uprising; in the second, there were probably a few hundred groans as many people reached for the remote and perhaps a few dozen angry e-mails and phone calls to the CBC.

                    The Catholic Civil Rights League has tried over the years to lead the way in protesting serious anti-Catholic media portrayals. I am often asked why the typical Catholic response is usually so tame, if one happens at all. Obviously, there is a cultural factor. North American and European Christians live in free-speech societies and in environments where religious differences tend to be accommodated and where religion is downplayed in a secular public atmosphere. This doesn’t make it right to mock religious beliefs as though faith was just another form of entertainment, but it probably does mean that when it happens Christians regard it more as tasteless humour than a serious attack.

                    More than likely, the people who send e-mails or make phone calls to complain know that change is unlikely. These complaints won’t reverse the ingrained biases of society and the media.

                    The CBC’s lampoon of  the Last Supper was far from its most serious example of anti-faith bias. No one would take the skit seriously. Some of the false impressions created by the CBC and other networks over the years by their slanted coverage of the sex-abuse scandals, or in police dramas where violence at abortion clinics always seems to have a Catholic angle, probably do more to perpetuate anti-Catholic bias.

                    Perhaps Catholics, and many other Christians, have stopped paying much attention to the media because the bias is rampant or because they believe any harm done falls short of egregious. While some of the worst South Park episodes, such as those involving a bleeding statue of the Virgin Mary or a depiction of Jesus Christ who could not perform miracles, drew sharp responses, including boycotts, most people responded by simply watching something else.

                    This may well be part of the reason that the media continues to take liberties with Christianity that they wouldn’t dare take with Islam. Christians seem resigned to the insults.

                    No one wants a world in which violent responses are the norm, but a short e-mail or phone call in protest of anti-religious bias can let producers and advertisers know they’ve lost some audience. As media executives and politicians both attest, it’s an issue if they hear about it, and if they don’t, it isn’t.

                    (McGarry is executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League.)

                      New school year, and trouble’s brewing

                      Bound to be further developments for parental rights, religious freedom

                       

                      Parental rights and religious freedom in schools have been under the microscope in Canada’s two largest provinces over the past year.  The arrival of a new school year is bound to bring further developments.

                      Let’s begin with Quebec, where parental objections to a mandatory school course led to a Supreme Court of Canada challenge. In 2008, Quebec introduced a course called Ethics and Religious Culture to replace existing courses in religious and moral instruction being taught in Catholic, Protestant and non-sectarian elementary and secondary schools. The curriculum change affected both public and private schools.

                      All children were required to take the new course. That prompted two parents, supported by a group of many more, to bring a case in Quebec Superior Court when requests to exempt their children from the course were denied. The parents argued that the mandatory course violated their religious convictions because it taught relativism — i.e. all religious beliefs are equally valid — and this  conflicted with their Roman Catholic beliefs.

                      Roughly 2,000 applications for exemptions had been submitted by Quebec parents. All were refused. Some parents removed their children from the class anyway, despite the threat of sanctions, including suspension of the students.

                      By refusing to make the course optional or allow exemptions, the state essentially foisted one belief system on students and their families. Polls have consistently shown that more than 70 per cent of Quebeckers believe parents should be allowed to withdraw their children from the course and also have the option of enrolling them in traditional Catholic or Protestant religious instruction. 

                      The case found support among a number of religious and civil liberty associations and was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.  But the appeal failed. The high court ruled in February 2012 that  Quebec school boards did not have to grant exemptions, stating that parents had yet to prove that the new course interfered with their right to religious freedom.

                      In effect, the court asserted that all Quebec parents (including the more than 2,000 parents who sought exemptions) must first expose their children to the new course and obtain evidence for their concerns. After gathering evidence, they could then re-start the process of seeking an exemption from their local school board. The Supreme Court left open the possibility of re-hearing the application, but only if it could be based on evidence to support the parents’ concerns. Still, a ruling that permits the state to impose a mandatory course on religious topics sets a troubling precedent that could be applied in other provinces when parents try to assert their rights.

                      The next challenge could come in Ontario, where  Bill-13, the Accepting Schools Act, became law in June following considerable input from parent and education groups. Presented as a strategy to combat bullying in schools, Bill-13 amends the Education Act to require schools to implement strategies to document and reduce bullying, and discipline the bullies.

                      While all parent and school groups endorse efforts to combat bullying, many are concerned that Bill-13 focusses on bullying based on sexual orientation. The preamble to the bill introduces the notion of gender as a social construct to include the “LGBTTIQ” categories of sexual orientation (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, transsexual, two-spirited, intersex, queer and questioning).

                      In perhaps the most controversial provision, the bill says all schools, including Catholic schools, must permit clubs called Gay-Straight Alliances if students request them. Opponents to the bill contend that the focus on concepts that conflict with a Catholic understanding of sexual morality  challenges a constitutional right to allow Catholic schools to teach Catholic values.

                      Most Catholic educators and parents recognize that Bill-13 cannot be implemented in Catholic schools without clear and consistent provisions to ensure anti-bullying clubs and other activities conform to Catholic teaching. During the legislative process, Catholic trustees, educators and bishops developed a policy called Respecting Difference to address bullying in all its forms, including bullying based on sexual orientation.

                      The policy requires anti-bullying clubs to be guided by knowledgeable and committed staff who can address student needs while remaining faithful to Catholic teaching. That has created the potential for conflict with leaders in the gay rights movement, who have indicated that they may initiate legal proceedings against Catholic schools.

                      Vigilance and involvement by Catholic parents and educators is vital in supporting anti-bullying initiatives that allow all students to feel safe and welcome while at the same time ensuring that Catholic denominational rights are protected.

                        Rumour mill forever spins tales of gay Christ film

                        Given that movies owe their existence to our taste for fantasy, escapism and entertainment, it’s not surprising that rumours are a big part of the business. Most of them involve the romances and fortunes of the big stars, but from time to time a story about a pending movie takes on a life of its own.

                        A rumour that reaches my desk about every three months involves a supposedly upcoming film portraying Jesus Christ as a gay man, complete with various story lines involving the apostles. Usually there is an invitation to sign a petition to let “them” know we won’t stand for it. Earlier versions — and this rumour goes back to the 1980s — encouraged letter-writing campaigns to senators and the governor in Illinois, the state where one film was allegedly going to be made.

                        In the 30-odd years that this story has been making the rounds, no evidence for the film’s existence has ever been found. In the early days, there was a low budget, art-house film with roughly the same theme that played for a very short time before disappearing. It was probably seen by only a few hundred people. Years later, there was a stage play similar to the one described in the petition. Terrance McNally’s 1998 dramatic offering  Corpus Christi previewed at the Manhattan Theatre Club in New York. As described by The New York Times, it “retells the biblical story of a Jesus-like figure — from his birth in a Texas flea-bag hotel with people having profane, violent sex in a room next door, to his crucifixion as ‘king of the queers’ in a manner with the potential to offend many people.” It did indeed offend many people and was shut down after a few weeks of massive protest. It continues to play in smaller theatres from time to time, often fuelling another round of rumours that the work is soon to be released as a major motion picture.

                        The spread of rumours and misinformation tends to accelerate when a desire for information is greater than the availability of verifiable facts. Studies of how news travels often find that rumour intensity is high when both the interest in an event and its ambiguity are great. The Internet has made all rumours and misinformation spread much faster, but some stories, such as this one, were able to spread quickly before the medium was even invented.

                        That may have something to do with Hollywood’s not-always-smooth relationship with religion in its film portrayals. While there have been such epics as The Ten Commandments or Greatest Story Ever Told, and more recently The Passion of the Christ and The Nativity Story, there was also Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), which reaped massive publicity — and long lines at the box office — after strong protests at theatres.  The uproar concerned a Jesus who both questioned His fate and who had a dream about a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. The film remains controversial, as do Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, Priest (1994) and others that focussed on attacking the fundamentals of Christianity’s origins or the personal failings of clergy and religious. 

                        Against that backdrop it is no wonder that many people could believe a “gay Jesus film” might be in the offing. (A Canadian would probably assume there was a government grant involved.) I suspect the rumour, and the petitions, will continue as long as there is any news that might spark it.

                        As it happens, there is indeed a new movie about Jesus Christ in production. Chris Columbus’ 1492 Pictures and CJ Entertainment have acquired the rights to the Anne Rice tome Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, which tells the story of a seven-year-old Jesus who departs Egypt with His family to return to Nazareth. Along the way He discovers the truth about His birth, who He is and His purpose in life. The movie is expected within a year.

                        According to Variety magazine, Columbus says: “This film has the potential to be a cinematic classic, a picture that will appeal to all ages, all around the world. I am proud to be part of this incredible production.”

                        Given Hollywood’s history with religious subjects, we’ll have to wait to see whether the enthusiasm is justified. Chances are there will be more than a rumour or two between now and release day!

                          Could it actually be that the media is on the side of life?

                          The parallels between abortion and euthanasia or assisted suicide are often cited during debates, especially by those who recall the role played by the media and the courts in first liberalizing Canada’s abortion laws and later eliminating them.  But over the past few weeks we have seen a striking difference emerge. 

                          Decades ago, almost all media outlets supported liberalization of abortion laws. In recent weeks, however, media reaction to a B.C. court decision striking down Canada’s assisted suicide laws has  been anything but unanimous. Even editorials supportive of the decision have acknowledged the vulnerability of the elderly and disabled, and pointed out the potential for abuse through a more liberal law.

                          Opposing the court decision, the Vancouver Province said, “Allowing doctors to kill patients nearing the end of their lives, even with their consent, cheapens the sanctity of life, no matter how horrible the disease a patient is suffering from.”