Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 21, 2005
Freedom of Religion? Really?
Each and every MP must vote according to his or her conscience
A Shepherd Speaks
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
Liberal Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew recently quipped: "I find the separation of Church and the state is one of the most beautiful inventions of modern times." He went on to add that the Church is obligated to remain silent on the issue of same sex unions as the government and the churches should not get involved in each others' affairs.
No retraction or apology has been forthcoming from the government to date. Nevertheless, it is clear that the churches in their opposition to same sex "marriage" legislation are starting to get under his thin skin.
To ask clergy and believers not to base their contribution to society and political life - through the legitimate means available to everyone in a democracy - on their particular understanding of the human person and the common good is to deny their basic rights.
Canada guarantees every one of its citizens "freedom of religion." Article 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms states: "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of religion and conscience." In Canada, freedom of religion means the numerous churches and religious bodies and individuals are free to speak about what our governments do or fail to do.
Religious freedom is central to the current debate about the re-invention of marriage.
A few weeks ago, I really wasn't too concerned about this dimension of the question, but I am now.
My first concern has to do with the Supreme Court's decision.
Their decision on the marriage reference indicates "the protection of religion afforded by s.2 (a) of the charter is broad enough and jealously guarded in our charter jurisprudence." Religious officials are protected "from being compelled by the state to perform civil or religious same-sex marriages that are contrary to their religious belief." Freedom of religion also prevents "the compulsory use of sacred places for the celebration of such marriages."
However, there is a disturbing qualifier added in the decision, that is, "absent unique circumstances with respect to which the court will not speculate, the guarantee of religious freedom in s. 2(a) of the charter is broad enough to protect religious officials."
Here we have an open door. Particular circumstances might lead to some future court legitimately trying to force religious officials to perform these ceremonies against their conscience, though the justices decline to speculate on what those circumstances might be. It is disquieting that the court would even raise the possibility.
My second concern has to do with the government's "heavenly deception" regarding Bill C-38.
According to the preamble and s.3 of the bill, officials of religious groups are protected from performing same-sex marriages, if it is contrary to their beliefs. These are absolutely meaningless provisions. Religious groups are not so protected by this same-sex legislation.
The federal government knows that the Supreme Court of Canada in the same-sex marriage reference case specifically stated that religious rights are matters of provincial jurisdiction only and that the federal government has no authority over them.
Marriage commissioners in some Canadian provinces have already been ordered to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex partners, despite their religious beliefs. The federal government can do nothing to halt this trampling on the religious beliefs of these commissioners, despite its statement in the preamble that "everyone" has freedom of conscience and religion that will not be affected by this same-sex legislation.
In addition, the federal government knows that in every case where religious rights have competed with homosexual rights, the Supreme Court of Canada has ordered the trumping of homosexual rights over religious rights. The parade of cases to diminish religious rights on same-sex marriage issues has already commenced with a B.C. lesbian couple claiming discrimination because a Catholic men's organization, the Knights of Columbus, has refused to rent its hall for their marriage celebration.
The preamble also claims that same-sex marriage, respects the "right" of same-sex couples to equality without discrimination. Again the federal government is fully aware that the Supreme Court of Canada did not state in the reference case that opposite sex marriage was discriminatory against same-sex couples. It merely stated that the government may, as a matter of policy, extend marriage to same-sex couples, but it did not require the government to do so, on the basis that it was an equality or human rights issue.
It is obvious that, in its effort to push through this unpopular legislation and make it more palatable, the government is involved in "heavenly deception."
In the one area where the Government of Canada is free to legislate on its own, there is silence. The proposed legislation does not offer protection to faith groups from being penalized with respect to their charitable status if they do not agree with the proposed redefinition of marriage.
It is sadly ironic that freedom of conscience and religion under section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms invoked by Bill C-38 has such limited application within the parliament of Canada itself. All cabinet ministers and the members of some opposition parties are expected to vote "yes," whether it is against their conscience or not.
If this matter is to be voted on in parliament, then every single Member of Parliament must be free to vote according to his or her conscience.
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