Freedom of religion in Canada
Part 2 – Understanding today’s climate
by Marion Van Driel
Canada is characterized by her diversity, her polite citizens, and her tolerance of just about anything – except rude behaviour. As Christians, we might ask whether that broad tolerance still extends to the faith that was instrumental in shaping this nation, her constitution and early policies. Christian values had an impact on every aspect of public policy: budgets, education, health care, and criminal law.
‘New philosophers’ and moral values
Don Hutchinson, a Christian lawyer who has spent decades engaging Parliament Hill in discussions of policy, states, “The Court has dared suggest that tolerance is not about exclusion or forced inclusion but acceptance of difference. And diversity does not require compliance or conformity with another’s beliefs or demands. However, the Court’s words are at variance with the positions of many new philosopher-activists, who have chosen neither to welcome the Court’s words nor heed them . . . their position is that all religion is bad; religion equates with mythology, that there’s no historical basis to religious beliefs. Whereas those of us who follow Christ, know that there is strong archaeological support for a lot of the historical record we find in the Bible.”
The perspective of these ‘new philosophers’ is that whatever they think is most significant, should be most significant. Their position is that the religious community should keep their faith private and stand on the outer perimeter of public business. That position, however, poses a problem; it uproots the moral anchor on which all of Canada’s public policy and law rests. Moral decisions are made in every area of the public arena – about what will be taught in our schools, what kind of health care will be provided and criminal laws which decide what’s acceptable or what is not acceptable for our society to be healthy.
“If you have no moral foundations on which to base those decisions,” says Hutchinson, “you’re making them as shots in the dark. And the people who pay the price are the recipients…students…patients…the average person whose taxes go up. Everything is linked.” He goes on to add, “The ‘new philosophers’ as I refer to them, tend to be more confrontational than conversational.” Not surprisingly, they are found in elected offices from school boards to federal positions, in the media and on social media – everywhere we find Christians and people of other faiths.
Freedom for all
Over time, our society has legitimized the opinions of those who have no faith basis in their lives – hence the evolvement of secularism. Recognizing that even those without any religious beliefs – even atheists and agnostics – believe in something, the Supreme Court has, in declaring Canada a ‘secular society’, included persons who hold religious beliefs, within that term. It has determined that in a free, democratic, pluralist society such as Canada, “the religiously placed conscience should not be placed at disadvantage or disqualification in engaging in the public square,” affirms Hutchinson. To allow only the worldview of those who don’t hold to religious beliefs to be heard and validated is to put others at a disadvantage. Christians, Jews, Hindus and Sikhs – indeed any person with religious beliefs has the right to speak freely from that belief system, a right that ends at the point of coercion.
Today, various structured faith groups across Canada participate in open and respectful conversations about their commonalities and differences. Hutchinson likens these exchanges to Jesus’ conversations. In the example of Jesus’ invitation to the rich young ruler, Hutchinson points out that Jesus didn’t harangue the young man for being overwhelmed by Jesus’ words, but gave him the freedom to walk away. “Jesus let the man go, knowing that the man had enough knowledge to make a decision… The only people Jesus harangued were the religious leaders who were making life difficult for people who wanted to follow God.”
Hutchinson contends that when we openly express our beliefs with other faith groups without using coercion and we listen respectfully to what they believe, we are engaging in evangelism. “We’re also engaging in understanding our neighbours so that we can love them better.”