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Guest Column

In Grits We Distrust

by Paul Albers

February 9, 2005

How can anyone believe Justice Minister Irwin Cotler when he claims the government’s same-sex legislation will not affect religious freedoms? Over and over again the Liberals have proven that they either don't understand what freedom of religion is, or they don't really care about protecting it. I would rather trust Don Cherry to run a charm school than trust the Liberals to protect the free exercise of religion.

Not that long ago, amendments to hate crime legislation designed to protect religious expression were voted down by the Liberals, and church leaders were threatened with the loss of their tax-exempt status if they spoke out against same-sex marriage during the election campaign. Under Martin's leadership, the party tested how effective religious bigotry would be as an election strategy, polling Canadians on whether they would be "more or less likely to vote for the Conservatives if you knew they had been taken over by evangelical Christians". They also prepared ads along the same lines. Recently, Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew said that churches should keep their nose out of the public debate over same-sex marriage.

Freedom of religion is not confined to the interior of chapels and it applies to both individuals and churches. It is a basic human right that includes freedom from being compelled to act contrary to your faith, and freedom from persecution because of your creed. It includes the right to share your beliefs publicly and privately, to teach them to your children, and the right to participate in society on an equal basis with all other citizens.

Religious people and groups have every right to lobby government for laws in harmony with their moral views and to work for the election of representatives who will voice their concerns. They have a right, and a duty to speak out on moral issues, even if they happen to be members of the clergy. Priests' religious authority is not political authority, but they do have a democratic right to bring what political pressure they can muster to bear on matters of religion and morality.

Paul Martin won't even allow his cabinet the right to vote their conscience on same-sex marriage. Those opposed must put their political career above their personal morals or be forced out just as marriage commissioners from coast to coast are being forced out of their jobs because of their religious views.

Liberal appointed judges have shown great disregard for religious liberties as well. They upheld schoolteacher Chris Kempling's suspension for writing a respectful letter to the editor expressing moral opposition to same-sex pension legislation. Printer shop owner Scott Brockie was fined for refusing to produce materials that violated his conscience, and the Durham Catholic School Board lost the right to require students to adhere to Catholic standards of behaviour while at their school dances.

It simply isn't enough to legislate that churches can't be forced to perform a same-sex ceremony, even if that law is upheld. The Port Coquitlam chapter of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, has withdrawn from the community in the face of legal action against them for refusing to allow a lesbian couple to rent their hall for the wedding reception. Now only practicing Catholics can use their facilities.

You can expect more of the same if marriage is redefined. Anyone who draws a moral distinction between homosexual and heterosexual couples might want to have a good lawyer handy. Nothing in the bill stops the government from someday requiring church operated adoption agencies to give equal consideration to same-sex couples. Nothing in the bill ensures that a church will not lose its tax-exempt status or face some other penalty for refusing to accept same-sex unions as valid. Do we really want the kind of freedom of religion where some religions are 'more free' than others?

The societal impact outside the church is also cause for concern. Schools that receive public funding (which would include many Catholic schools) and government funded daycare centres could be required to actively contradict the moral teachings of Christian, Jewish and Muslim parents. Individuals who do not accept same-sex marriage as a human right, even on religious grounds, could find themselves disqualified from working as teachers, police, judges, or elected officials.

Pettigrew might change his mind about the separation of church and state being "one of the most beautiful inventions of modern times" if he realized just what it was that Thomas Jefferson meant by that phrase. Jefferson coined the term to reassure the Danbury Baptists that it was beyond the constitutional powers of the government to interfere with the free exercise of religion or to limit religious expression.

If you go to Washington D.C. and visit Jefferson's Memorial, you'll find these words of his carved deep in the marble: "Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever." I have no doubt that if Jefferson were alive; the Liberals would add him to their list of people who should shut up.

Paul Albers is a freelance columnist living in Ottawa

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