A SHEPHERD SPEAKS

Bishop Fred Henry

January 31, 2011

Regrettably both the Calgary Herald editorial and the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal got it wrong regarding marriage commissioners. (See WCR, Jan. 24, "Sask. marriage commissioners must perform same-sex weddings.")

Religious belief is intertwined with our nation's history, the spirit of the founding fathers and mothers of our nation, our national anthem, and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms which begins "Whereas Canada is founded upon the principles that recognize the supremacy of God and the rule of law."

Immediately, the charter proceeds to list our fundamental freedoms. The first one is the freedom of conscience and religion.

The second is freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression.

FREEDOMS FIRST

Only after, not before, asserting our fundamental freedoms, does the charter begin to spell out rights - first democratic rights, then mobility rights, followed by legal rights, then equality rights, etc.

Freedom of conscience and of religion is a primary and inalienable right of the human person; what is more, insofar as it touches the innermost sphere of the spirit, one can even say that it upholds the justification, deeply rooted in each individual, of all other liberties. Of course, such freedom can only be exercised in a responsible way, that is, in accordance with ethical principles.

A commitment to human rights is not alien to any authentic quest for religious or moral truth because it flows from the very nature of the human person and emerges naturally in all authentic religious, moral and cultural traditions as they move to express more deeply the truth of human life.

It is significant that nations with widely varying religious heritages have embraced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The proposed legislation adequately balanced the interests of all parties, ensuring that same-sex couples had access to marriage and that marriage commissioners had protection for their religious beliefs. It is disappointing that the court did not see the wisdom of this balanced approach.

OPTIONS OPEN

The court did, however, leave open the possibility of introducing a "single entry point system," such as that used in Ontario, under which "a couple seeking these services of a marriage commissioner would proceed, not directly contacting an individual commissioner, but dealing with the director of the Marriage Unit or some other central office."

This whole scenario, however, is not just about marriage commissioners. There is a need to examine the ideology that produces such judgments. The challenges that they propose will return on different stages and with similar theatrical garb.

We might well ask: "Who's next?"

Are physicians and surgeons going to lose their right not to perform a service or offer advice when doing so would be to act contrary to his or her conscience or religious and ethical principles.

PHYSICIANS' RIGHTS

Of course, every patient does have the right to good medical care. This does not translate, however, into a right to demand that a physician set aside deeply held moral and religious convictions in order to accommodate every wish of the patient, for example, termination of a pregnancy, euthanasia, sterilization, etc.

Such an expectation would constitute a terrible violation of the freedom to act in accordance with conscience or religion, which is a fundamental right of every citizen, regardless of occupation.

In the event of a conflict between a physician's right to freedom of conscience and the desires of a patient, the physician need only communicate clearly and respectfully to the patient the limits of his or her medical practice.