Friday, May 28, 2010

Religious Freedom for Christians Shrinks in Canada

David Koyzis has some insightful comments on the recent appeal of Christian Horizons of its conviction by the Ontario Human Rights Commission for dismissing an employee for breaking the lifestyle code she agreed to uphold when she was hired.

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms claims to guarantee all Canadians certain fundamental freedoms, including “freedom of conscience and religion” and “freedom of association.” However, following American precedent this country’s courts have tended to interpret religious freedom rather narrowly, viz., as the right of individual citizens to worship freely. Whether communities are recognized to possess religious freedom is unclear in contemporary jurisprudence, given the dominating influence of liberalism.

Take the recent case of Heintz v. Christian Horizons. Christian Horizons is a more than 40-year-old organization dedicated to the care of mentally handicapped persons. Like many confessional organizations, it has a faith and lifestyle statement which employees are required to sign. Ten years ago an employee was dismissed for not living up to this statement. She filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, which ruled in her favour two years ago, holding that a Christian ministry could not impose such requirements on its own employees if it served the larger community rather than its own members. On appeal, however, the Ontario Divisional Court in Toronto upheld the right of Christian Horizons to adopt such a statement. Or did it?

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada immediately claimed victory for charities across the country. Others were not so sure: Faith-based charity ruling too murky, experts say. Even the EFC’s general legal counsel Don Hutchinson, writing in yesterday’s National Post, was less than favourably impressed by the ruling: Heintz v Christian Horizons: Solomon would not approve. So is religious freedom in Canada secure? Despite the Charter guarantees that appear to say yes, court interpretations leave the matter open.

The distinction between freedom of religion and freedom of worship is crucial here. The old Soviet Union upheld freedom of worship, meaning that individuals could worship whoever they wanted in private. But many social aspects of religion - public worship services, teaching religion to one's children and congregations exercising church discipline on their members were heavily regulated and stifled by the State.

In the process of narrowing freedom of religion down to freedom of worship what happens is that the individual is progressively separated out from the herd and isolated. This is actually a form of religious persecution, but it is clothed in the language of tolerance and freedom. This is what is happening today in Canada and it is not very different from what happens under totalitarianism.

We have a constitution but it is not worth the paper it is written on if the courts do not uphold it. And if the courts seek to "uphold" it by narrowing the definition of "freedom of conscience and religion" (Part I, Section 2a) down to a private and individualistic right to "worship" in one's own mind, then what we have is the death of freedom by a thousand cuts, a gradual erasure of freedom of religion conducted in that quasi-legal manner that tends to characterize all totalitarian regimes.

If our government and courts will not uphold the constitution, then it is the duty of all to rise up and restore the constitution. Democratic means of doing so have not yet been exhausted, so violence is not yet justifiable. But it is the duty of Canadian citizens to become informed, organize, lobby and vote for the constitutional right of freedom of religion in Canada. This is a basic responsibility of citizenship in our system and one that Canadian Christians must not shirk.

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