Update on Religious Freedom in Canada

Rev. DeVries is pastor or the Protestant Reformed Church in Wingham, Ontario, Canada.

From time to time I'm asked, by friends and fellow saints in the United States, regarding the current status of religious freedom here in Canada. Are things getting worse for the faithful church, for serious-minded Christians who strive to live according to their religious (biblical) convictions? One ominous indication that there is much reason for concern is the sad fact that "The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter" (May 2009) focused on religious liberty issues in Canada. Normally this informative newsletter relates accounts of the suffering of Christians in such countries as Iran, North Korea, China, India—countries strictly controlled by dictators or radical religious zealots. While Christians are overtly being persecuted in many places around the world, a more subtle, insidious antichristian campaign is taking place here in Canada. For a country that talks endlessly about its Charter of Rights, for a country that boasts in being a free and tolerant society, the sad reality is that some rights are now less popular—and less protected—than others. And many Christians are finding that Canadian society is increasingly intolerant of their beliefs. 

Freedom of conscience is increasingly under attack in Canada. In the above-mentioned "The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter," Janet Epp Buckingham, Associate professor of political science and history at Trinity Western University, reports and comments on these attacks in an article entitled, "Shut Down, Shut Up and Shut Out: Religious Freedom in Canada":

The most serious violation of religious conscience currently is that of marriage commissioners, who are being forced to solemnize same-sex marriages or lose their license to marry. Marriage commissioners are not clergy and solemnize civil marriages. But some marriage commissioners are Christians and include Christian content in the weddings they perform. Orville Nichols, in Saskatchewan, refused to solemnize a same-sex marriage and is facing a human rights complaint. In two other cases, currently on hold pending the decision in the Nichols case, marriage commissioners made human rights complaints against provincial governments in Saskatchewan and Manitoba in relation to official letters requiring that they solemnize same sex marriages.... 

...Over the last few years, we have seen a variety of Christian professionals, from teachers to pharmacists, from doctors to printers, face legal consequences for following their Christian morals. These professionals have paid a huge price in terms of publicity, and legal fees, to stand up for their beliefs. Probably the best known of these is Scott Brockie, a Toronto printer who refused to print materials for an organization that, in Brockie's view, promoted homosexuality. Brockie faced a complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission and then brought an appeal to the Ontario Superior court. Ultimately Brockie lost the battle, but felt that he won the war. The court said that while Brockie cannot refuse to do work for an organization, he may refuse to print material that violates his religious beliefs. It is a fine line that may be difficult to determine in practice.
 

A teacher, Chris Kempling, in British Columbia and a nurse, Bill Whatcott, in Saskatchewan, have both been disciplined by their professional associations for "conduct unbecoming" for publicizing their views on homosexuality and abortion, respectively. Both Kempling and Whatcott based their opinions on their Christian beliefs but also included facts and figures that they felt made their issues of concern to the broader public.
 

Nurses, pharmacists and doctors have had issues both with their professional associations and human rights commission complaints for refusing to provide professional services that violate their consciences. Cristina Alarcon, for example, lost her job at a Calgary pharmacy because she refused to dispense prescriptions that violated her conscience. For Catholics, this can include birth control pills as well as abortifacients. A doctor in Barrie, Ontario faced professional discipline for refusing to prescribe birth control for single women patients.
 

But any Christian who is a member of a professional association, and this includes engineers, medical professionals, teachers, lawyers, accountants, etc., live under a professional code of conduct and can be disciplined by a professional association. This means that they can be stripped of their professional license, or suspended for a period of time. This obviously has a significant impact on the ability to earn a living.
 

In a similar way, pro-life students clubs have lost their club status on campus, leaving the group without the ability to have meetings on campus. Several campuses have shut down pro-life meetings, most recently at St. Mary's University in Halifax, and pro-life displays. At the University of Calgary, the university went so far as to charge students with trespassing who participated in the Genocide Awareness Project, which displays pictures of aborted fetuses alongside Holocaust photos.
 

These issues are clearly not outright restrictions on practicing one's religion. But they are more subtle ways that society restricts certain religious beliefs with which it disagrees. The message is, "Keep your weird beliefs to yourself."

Religious organizations and institutions also come under attack. In 2008 a human rights complaint was filed against Christian Horizons, the largest private provider of residential care to mentally disabled adults in Ontario. This case revealed that even having an employee lifestyle policy that a worker willingly signed offers no protection. A staff member was let go after disclosing that she had become a lesbian. An Ontario human rights tribunal ruled that Christian Horizons cannot discriminate in hiring staff. Janet Epp Buckingham explains the seriousness of this case:

While the decision really focused on the issue of sexual orientation, the tribunal seemed to say that Christian Horizons cannot require that staff be Christians. The decision was based on the narrow exemption in the Ontario Human Rights Code that is limited to organizations that provide services to their own constituency. Because Christian Horizons does not require the adults it serves to be Christians, it does not fit in the exemption. Christian Horizons has appealed the case to the Ontario Superior Court. It would undermine many Christian out-reach organizations—ministries to the poor and homeless, for example—if they cannot hire Christians. How can they maintain a Christian ministry?

Christian pastors have not been immune to these attacks. "All Around Us" reported the story of Alberta youth pastor Stephen Boissoin, who was charged with a hate crime after he wrote a letter to the editor of theRed Deer Advocate expressing his concerns about the effect of homosexual normalization on Canada's youth (SB, September 1, 2008). Rev. Boissoin was barred for life by the Alberta Human Rights and Citizenship Commission from ever uttering a disparaging word about homosexuals again. This is a penalty of almost whimsical despotism. No court could pronounce such a sentence, because no law prescribes it. This ruling we might expect to come from a dictator in some banana republic. As Jane Epp Buckingham concluded, "When Christian morals collide with social values, Christians are increasingly shut down, shut up and shut out." 

But don't breathe a sigh of relief merely because you happen to reside in the United States. True, in the U.S. the courts have traditionally upheld Freedom of Religion, a First Amendment Right. But clearly that freedom has been delivered a severe blow with the election of the Obama administration. President Obama announced soon after entering office that he was reversing the conscience rule introduced by former President Bush. This rule requires institutions that receive federal funding to certify their compliance with laws protecting conscience rights. It was intended to block the flow of federal funds to hospitals and other institutions that ignore the rights of moral objectors. Dr. David Stevens, head of the U.S. Christian Medical and Dental Association, worries that Barack Obama is about to end his medical career. "What does free exercise of religion mean, if I cannot follow my conscience?" he asks. "It becomes meaningless if you try to privatize beliefs (to the point) where they have no bearing on action." 

In addition, earlier this spring the U.S. House of Representatives approved a federal "hate crimes" bill that would provide special protections to homosexuals but leave Christian ministers open to prosecution should their teachings be linked to any subsequent offense, by anyone, against a "gay." Matt Barber of Liberty Counsel has spoken out against this legislation (H.R. 1913) a number of times. He terms this an Orwellian piece of legislation that "represents a thinly veiled effort to ultimately silence—under penalty of law—morally, medically and biblically based opposition to the homosexual lifestyle...." 

Clearly the Christian life in Western society is becoming more and more difficult. Certain careers and businesses may be increasingly difficult for a serious-minded Christian to choose without a severe compromise of his convictions. The hostility of the darkness for the light will be increasingly manifest as the day of the Lord's return draws closer. Obviously there is growing tolerance for virtually any belief or philosophy other than the truth of the Word of God. 

As church of Jesus Christ there is no question as to our calling. "Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine" (II Tim. 4:2). Oh, we should be wise, not purposely seeking to draw down upon ourselves the wrath of the magistrates. Let us remember the Word of Christ to His disciples: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matt. 10:16). At the same time, we must pray for the boldness of Peter and John as they testified of the Christ in the midst of the Jewish Council (Acts 4). We, too, must obey God rather than men! May our prayer be that of the early church, "And now, Lord, behold their threatenings: and grant unto thy servants, that with all boldness they may speak thy word" (Acts 4:29).

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