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Christians Could Lose Religious Freedoms in Canada
The shape and extent of religious freedom of expression is being determined in Canada right now.

Could Christians lose their religious freedom in Canada? The answer is "yes," says Janet Epp Buckingham, Director of Law and Public Policy for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC).

… a lesbian couple has registered for a Christian marriage enrichment seminar.

"[If it happens] it will happen on an incremental basis, case by case," she says. "In fact, we are losing religious freedoms in some areas already."

Buckingham spoke at a seminar called "Ministry in Canada: Navigating Through Changing Times" held at the Rideau Heights Salvation Army Citadel in October, 2005.

Buckingham says that the shape and extent of religious freedom of expression is being determined in Canada right now. More cases involving religious freedom are moving through the courts at this time than have been previously decided throughout the rest of Canadian history.

Over the past year, two new pieces of legislation have also changed the Canadian landscape. A so-called "anti-hate bill" was passed by the Canadian parliament that is being used to curb religious freedom of expression in the area of homosexuality. And most recently, the federal government has moved to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples.

Licensed clergy are protected under provincial legislation from being forced to marry same-sex couples and the province also protects "sacred places" from use for same-sex weddings. "Sacred places" include church buildings, grounds and other buildings associated with a church.

Although clergy are protected, probably no one else connected with the wedding industry will be able to claim a right to conscience, including organizations that rent halls, caterers, florists, photographers and musicians.

And same-sex marriage is raising new wrinkles—already a lesbian couple has registered for a Christian marriage enrichment seminar.

"Are you ready for this in your church?" asks Buckingham. She adds that same-sex couples are likely to want marriage enrichment opportunities—and that churches are the only organizations that typically offer such courses.

She says that it is probably not possible to say 'no' to a same-sex couple wanting to register for a seminar. She suggests "preparing both the same-sex couple and everyone else for what will happen," which might mean Christian couples would drop out because of feeling uncomfortable having a same-sex couple present.

An overnight retreat with sleeping facilities for participating couples would be more complicated, she says. If held at a retreat centre, most Christian venues would have policies in place that would prohibit a same-sex couple from sharing a room, "and that would have to be addressed head-on" with the same-sex couple, she says.

Buckingham recommends that churches develop marriage policies, facility use policies and staff conduct policies that deal with same-sex issues as well as other issues.

A year ago, Maranatha Church, Belleville, Ontario, revised its marriage policy and included a statement about same-sex marriage. Maranatha is in the process of developing an ethical conduct policy for staff and volunteers that would include same-sex issues. The church will also be reviewing facility use policy in light of these changes.

Buckingham also says that pastors are being muzzled by courts and human rights tribunals.

"Little known to most Canadians, there are currently at least five cases in court dealing with religious expression about homosexuality," Buckingham says. Two are against clergy, one of them a Catholic bishop.

Buckingham is involved in most of the cases behind the scenes on behalf of the EFC. The cases aren't always the best cases for determining law, she says—but "our freedoms are being decided by these cases. There is a place for standing together."

The most troubling case is the one involving Chris Kempling, the B.C. public school teacher who was suspended for writing letters to the editor on the issue homosexuality, because "Kempling's comments are quite mild, not harsh in any way," she says.

According to Buckingham, the legal trend in Canada is to strongly protect the rights of individuals when it comes to religious practices—but the effect is to privatize religion, relegating it to home and the church and shutting it out of the public marketplace.

A notable example is in Surrey, B.C. where there are sizable populations of Evangelical Christians, Muslims and Sikhs, who all spoke against a proposal to include books advocating homosexuality in the curriculum in grades as low as kindergarten and Grade One.

"Christians are allowed to … speak, but can't influence policy!"

The courts supported the rights of those parents to express their religious views in public meetings to the school board—but said that their views could not be used to set school policy because of the religious nature of the views.

"It's an Alice in Wonderland case," says Buckingham. "Christians are allowed to come to the school board and speak, but can't influence policy!"

Legal battles are costly and take a long time. It costs about $500,000 to take a case all the way to the Supreme Court.

Part of Buckingham's role is to help advise Christians and Christian organizations facing such legal battles. She also seeks to intervene in the cases on behalf of the EFC.

"We do get heard in the courts," she says. "We are making a difference." In one case, she said, the judge rejected the EFC's presentation to the court—but then used language from the EFC presentation when the judgement was rendered.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada has been holding Christian Leaders' Connection Seminars across Canada to help pastors and church leaders understand the impact of current issues such as the redefinition of marriage. This is a report from a Kingston, Ontario meeting.

Dave Botting is the editor of Maranatha Life.

Originally published in Maranatha Life, November 2005.




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