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What Do You Say? What Can You Say?

What does the Supreme Court decision in the Whatcott case mean for religious communication?

This article was originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2013

By Don Hutchinson

Several years ago, there was an urban legend circulating that a pastor was convicted and imprisoned by a human rights commission for his comments on “sin” in a sermon recorded without authorization by a visitor. One version said this happened in Windsor, another said Lethbridge.

 While human rights commissions don’t have the power to convict anyone of a crime or imprison anyone, the damage was done. Most Canadians are not familiar with human rights tribunals or how to search the law to see if such a story is true. No doubt there were sermon writers who avoided potentially controversial issues as a result. Pastors don’t unnecessarily jeopardize their availability to shepherd their flock.

There were also real human rights complaints in many provinces about Christians preaching, teaching or writing about marriage as consisting of one woman and one man, with sexual behaviour outside that relationship considered “sinful.” Some Christians expressed these ideas about sex and marriage in contemporary, everyday language. Others used wording that echoed the 1611 King James Bible.

Few people were able to track the broader picture – that most of these complaints went nowhere. A few progressed, largely due to poorly reasoned human rights tribunal decisions, but most were later overturned by the real courts.

The urban legends added to the real – but mostly unsuccessful – complaints. Together they heightened general concerns, unjustly inflicted fear and induced a “chill” effect on free (religiously informed) speech.

In response, some felt they needed to step forward, perhaps thinking of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin when they replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you or to obey him? We cannot keep quiet about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20, CEV).

Unfortunately, not all of them heeded Jesus’ teaching to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves”  (Matthew 10:16, KJV). Or as the retired politician Preston Manning paraphrases it, avoid being vicious as snakes and stupid as pigeons.

What all this comes down to, of course, is whether wise or non-criminal harmful words matter in our society – a constitutionally proclaimed “free and democratic society” with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees “freedom of conscience and religion” and “freedom of expression.”

In the Whatcott decision released Feb. 27, the Supreme Court of Canada has again answered “yes” to that question – the choice of words and the harm they cause do matter.

The court found the Bible itself cannot be accused of being harmful or hateful, except in the rarest of circumstance and context. But how we choose to express principles stated in or developed from the Scriptures – these may indeed be harmful or hateful.

The 6-0 decision in the Whatcott case (more details at did not zero in on absolute truth, but on whether the expressions used could be objectively viewed as “detestation” and “vilification” of an identifiable group of people. Was the wording that caused the complaint indeed the language of condemnation?

All of us, regardless of religious tradition, know about condemning language, don’t we? Even as children, when we defended ourselves by chanting, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” we were usually doing so to cover up the hurt that someone’s unkind words had inflicted on us.

Hurt feelings are subjective and insufficient to trigger concern of the courts, but expressed hatred based on the characteristics of a group of people identified by those characteristics – whether religion, ethnicity, race or sexual orientation – may well cross the line to potential financial penalties.

The Apostle Paul offers good advice, “Be wise in the way you act toward others; make good use of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, choose your words carefully and be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks questions” (Colossians 4:5-6a, paraphrased). And similarly, “God’s Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. There is no law against behaving in any of these ways” (Galatians 5:22-23, CEV).



The Abortion Debate Never Ended

By Faye Sonier

Over 15,000 pro-lifers are again expected to rally on Parliament Hill today for the annual National March for Life. Writers and bloggers will cover the event and, invariably, some will question the purpose of such events since the abortion debate ended years ago. A few will likely accuse those politicians speaking at the March of attempting to re-open the abortion debate.

But exactly when did the abortion debate end? I've been an active pro-life advocate for years, and I don't know when this historic event took place. However some days it seems that everyone else does.

Margaret Wente knows when the debate ended. A few weeks ago, she wrote a Globe and Mail article on a Parliamentary motion seeking to condemn sex-selective abortions in which she stated that "anyone who believes this wasn’t an effort to reopen the broader abortion debate must also believe in the Easter Bunny." Similarly, Member of Parliament Niki Ashton knows it happened. Again and again, she has spoken of the Conservative Party’s efforts to “re-open the abortion debate.”

I can't find any historical record that establishes "the day the abortion debate ended." I would assume that pro-choice advocates would have held a rally and press conferences to celebrate the momentous event. Surely there would be pictures and videos. It would probably have its own Wikipedia entry. My searches have come up empty.

Did it end in 1988 when seven citizens who sat on the bench of the Supreme Court of Canada rendered their decision in the Morgentaler case?  A quick read of the decision indicates otherwise. The court only found the then existing abortion law unconstitutional because of limited access to the therapeutic abortion committees mandated by the legislation. The court then ruled that Parliament was free to draft a new and better law that would protect the child in the womb. The Supreme Court even proposed language to ensure that the new legislation would be constitutionally acceptable.

Did it end in 1991 after Bill C-43, a bill which would have recriminalized some abortions, passed in the House of Commons but died in the Senate after a dramatic tie vote? It seems not, as nearly every year since then bills or motions on the issue have been introduced by members of the Liberal, Reform, Alliance and Conservative parties. Political battles wage municipally, provincially and federally on matters like Bubble Zones, funding for abortion procedures and the publication of abortion statistics.

At no point have all Canadians agreed that abortion should be legal through all nine months of pregnancy for any and every reason, but that is our current legal reality. None of the polls I’ve reviewed have revealed such a consensus. The abortion related poll that lends itself closest to unanimity is a 2011 Environics poll which found that 92% of Canadians believe sex-selection abortions should be illegal.

And if the abortion debate had in fact ended, one would expect to see much less media coverage of the issue. However, a month doesn't go by without at least one significant abortion-related story making the major dailies. The frequent reporting on abortion stories necessarily assumes that there's a debate, or at least a tension, worth writing about.

The abortion debate has never closed, died or ended. To argue otherwise is to argue that those who want to rationally discuss the issue are to be marginalized as fringe elements of society; that the pro-life activists who came to Ottawa last year to march for life are 19,000 anomalies; and, that their perspective is inconsistent with some greater enshrined Canadian value of “choice.”

To contend that the abortion debate is over is to declare that there is consensus in Canada on an issue where no such consensus exists.  In reality, it’s an intellectually lazy attempt at discrediting those who legitimately question the appropriateness of our nation being the only western country in the world that lacks abortion legislation.



The CRTC, basic cable and Christian coverage on Canadian TV

By Don Hutchinson

In April, Canada’s telecom regulator started hearings as the battle over basic cable heats up.

The advantage of being on basic cable (called “mandatory carriage” in the telecom world) is that every cable subscriber in the jurisdiction where you broadcast will get your station. Not on basic cable? People have to pay extra to see what you produce.

Cable providers pay most basic cable channels a matter of pennies per subscriber. This is used to develop Canadian programming. It’s not a government subsidy.

As the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) holds hearings to assess whether select stations should have the privilege of being on basic cable, the competitors are jockeying for position. It can resemble a collection of Davids and Goliaths in hand-to-hand combat on an open field (of course, inside a locked stadium controlled by the CRTC).

Sun News Network (SUN TV) was bumped from basic cable in the deal that secured their license in 2010 and their projected viewership declined accordingly, to the point where they are losing money. A return to the basic cable universe – with a reasonably anticipated recovery of viewers – would likely propel “the little station that could” out of the red and into the black. SUN certainly provides a readily observable alternative perspective on the day’s events to that of CTV News Channel and CBC News Network; and, features all-Canadian primetime content. CTV News Channel and CBC News Network had 21 and 13 years respectively on basic cable across the country to develop their audiences (while piggybacking their parent networks). SUN has evidenced the type of viewership they have the potential to draw on basic. Seems to me this combination makes SUN worthy of consideration for the basic spectrum. On top of that however, SUN has demonstrated that it is the news channel most interested in faith viewpoints on the news that interests Canadians.

VISION TV, now part of Moses Znaimer’s Zoomer Media, is a uniquely Canadian invention that provides multi-faith and multi-cultural programming – a television tribute to Canada’s constitutional religious freedom and multiculturalism. Whatever one thinks of Znaimer’s previous efforts at CITY, SEX, MuchMusic or Bravo, the production standards, community engagement and Canadian content were innovative and progressively high as he honed his skills; and, all opinions were welcome by the management – who didn’t necessarily agree with them, and neither necessarily did we. Znaimer’s now mature production and management skills, along with continuing open invitation to on-air conversation, are becoming increasingly evident at VISION too. The Canadian multi-faith and multi-cultural content combined with the Znaimer touch make VISION a legitimate contender to remain on Canadian basic cable.

Throw in CPAC (jointly owned by cable providers that cover the nation; Rogers, Shaw, Videotron, Cogeco, EastLink and Access) , the Weather Network, Crossroads (primarily Christian but hosting other faith-based programming), APTN, public broadcasters like TVO and national coverage of French networks and one can see Canadian content is key.

Then we have the CBC family of stations , recipient of over $1 billion annually from the federal government – which is a taxpayer subsidy – in addition to advertising and basic cable payments, and Bell Media (CTV, CTV Two, CTV NewsChannel, TSN, Comedy, etc along with Bell satellite TV). The field is further confused by the cable providers who also own multiple stations – the aforementioned Bell, Shaw (Global, TVTropolis, SHOW CASE, etc), Rogers (CITY, Omni, Sportsnet, etc), etc – who clearly want the stations they own as part of their basic cable packages.

How will this settle out? Well, in the modern world of Canadian communications several of the major players also own print and digital media outlets. The average Canadian reads their Globe and Mail without making the connection to Bell Media in the same way that reading a SUN newspaper – once described as “the little paper that could” – draws the obvious connection to SUN TV; the little station that’s getting kicked around by the big media players. The print media competitors tend to cast their television competitors in a less favourable light, but with SUN the shared name makes it a little more obvious who they’re rooting (writing) for.

I can’t tell you how the CRTC hearings will settle out on this one. I can tell you that Canada’s religious communities are well served by having Crossroads, VISION and SUN available because, well, those are stations that regularly invite and feature the participation of various religious communities on the “airwaves” in Canada’s constitutionally “free and democratic society,” where our first fundamental freedom is “freedom of religion” and over ¾ of Canadians identify religion as significant in their lives. CBC, CTV, Global and others accept Christian programming and have occasional news interest, but I wouldn’t say they invite or feature it.

Crossroads, VISION and SUN present Canadian Christian (and other religious) voices with the opportunity to engage routinely as part of the diverse Canadian community – whether Crossroads’ longstanding “100 Huntley Street” or feature Canadian historical documentaries such as “Goal of the Century: The Paul Henderson Story,” VISION’s 25 years of original Canadian multi-faith and multi-cultural programming or SUN TV regularly inviting religious and non-religious voices together into conversations about news stories of the day. These are three Canadian originals that balance out the generally secular expression of Canadian cable and deserve space on basic cable for viewer consideration in every living room of the nation.


Undercutting an Anti-religious Undercurrent

We can contribute to a better Canada by patiently speaking the truth.

This article was originally published in Faith Today, March/April 2013.

By Don Hutchinson

Canadians are told in the media – almost daily it seems – that Canada is no longer Christian, Canada is less religious, Canada is secular, and Canada has no place for religion in public life. These statements used to make my blood boil.

But a better response – for all of us – is to find in such comments the inspiration to speak the truth. When we do so together, we undercut this anti-religious undercurrent.

Constructive response has long been evident in the EFC’s work. Consider, for example, how we responded to allegations that the biblically based position on marriage is “homophobic” and unacceptable in contemporary Canada under our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The campaign to keep the pre-2005 Parliamentary definition of marriage was a fight “for” not a fight “against,” and the EFC made that clear.

One result of our intervention was the Supreme Court of Canada affirmation that if the government changed the definition it could not require religious officials to perform marriages that would violate their religious beliefs. The court noted that “religious freedom is broad and jealously guarded in Canadian law.”

When Parliament changed the definition of marriage by passing the Civil Marriage Act in 2005 it declared in the legislation that “Nothing in this Act affects the guarantee of freedom of conscience and religion and, in particular, the freedom of members of religious groups to hold and declare their religious beliefs,” and “It is not against the public interest to hold and publicly express diverse views on marriage.”

More recently, in EFC presentations on proposed anti-bullying legislation in Ontario, we expressed interest for all students, concerned that the emphasis on gay and lesbian students detracted from the needs of more than 90 per cent of those who experience bullying in Canadian schools.

We directly confronted the continuing improper use of the word “homophobic” as a slur in public debate, including in the media and political speeches. We did so before government as well as in the media, including my article “Is It Homophobic in Here or Is It Just Me?” that was linked to a National Post homepage story in May 2012.

Good news! We have contributed to a righting of this bias. In December 2012 the Associated Press, one of the world’s oldest (est. 1846) and most respected standard setters in journalism, changed its style guide. The AP states the word “homophobia” is not to be used in political or social contexts because its use has been imprecise and inaccurate.

Another oft-repeated misstatement concerns “the separation of church and state,” a legal doctrine in the United States of America that is based on the U.S. constitution. This concept was intended to protect churches from interference by the state. Ironically, most of the people who raise the subject in Canada today want to suggest just the opposite – that the government needs to somehow be protected from the influence of churches!

In Canadian legal history, our churches too were protected from the interference of government.  This protection was affirmed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which lists “freedom of conscience and religion” as the first of the fundamental freedoms Canadians enjoy. The Supreme Court of Canada has interpreted this constitutional guarantee to apply both to individuals and to religious communities including educational and service institutions as well as congregations.

The court has also affirmed that Canadians can’t be disqualified from participation in developing public policy because of our religious beliefs. Canadian religious individuals and organizations are welcome to engage in Canadian politics and public policy, as well as work co-operatively with government as appropriate to accomplish its purposes.

It’s up to all Christians to ensure that anti-religious undercurrents are not permitted to cut away at truth. We need to be attentive to and engaged in the world around us, or such undercurrents may undermine our very presence.


Baby Girls and the Economic Action Plan

By Don Hutchinson

This week in Ottawa has been a roller coaster for social conservatives (socons) and theological conservatives (theocons). While people who fit in those camps often find alignment with capital “C” political Conservatives, the upper case and lower case “c” distinctions are significant as many also align with Liberals and New Democrats.

For me, the week started with the first time opportunity to attend a hearing in the British Columbia Court of Appeal live from Ottawa! Ah, the “miracle” of the internet. The 3 hour time difference means this week’s Ottawa mornings seem earlier; lunch break is at 3:30 pm (Eastern Daylight Savings Time); and, this week the end of my days is at night!

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada’s brief presentation to the court in support of maintaining Canada’s current prohibition against physician assisted suicide was made by local counsel, Geoffrey Trotter. You can read it here (with links to our written submission, as well). As Geoffrey stated, “The English word for suicide is derived from the Latin which literally means ‘self-killing.’  The term ‘physician-assisted suicide’, then, can only mean the killing of patients by their doctors.”

My Tuesday morning included an exciting meeting as the steering committee puts the final touches on the Bridging the Secular Divide: Religion and Canadian Public Discourse conference to be hosted at McGill University on May 27 and 28. Registration is now open and seating is limited.

Thursday, whether socon or theocon, was met with the surprising news that MPs from the Conservative, Liberal and NDP parties voted unanimously at the Subcommittee on Private Members’ Business to prevent Motion M-408 (sponsored by Mark Warawa, MP Langley) from proceeding for consideration by the House of Commons. The motion reads simply, “That the House condemn discrimination against females occurring through sex-selective pregnancy termination.” The only witness called by the committee was from the Library of Parliament and testified that the motion satisfied all criteria for being considered by the House. Here are our thoughts on the matter.

Thursday was also budget day, or as it’s referred to by Canada’s Government, Economic Action Plan 2013. While the opposition leaders oppose (that’s why they’re called opposition) there are some positive things in the budget for Evangelicals; whether we can accurately be labeled as socons and theocons or not.

Chapter 3.5 is where we find initiatives such as:

  • Encouragement for adoption through the Adoption Expense Tax Credit
  • Tariff relief on baby clothing and sports and athletic equipment

Money in the pockets of Canadian families is a good thing.  Here’s a bit of an explanation why, as found in our brief commentary on the EFC’s pre-budget submission from last year.

Other positive initiatives include:

  • Continuation of the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (focusing on Housing First) for 5 more years
  • Investment in affordable housing for Canadians in need (more than 300,000 are homeless) over the next 5 years
  • New incentive for charitable donations by first time givers (see our comments on strengthening Canada’s charitable sector)
  • Proposals to invest in addressing some of the unique needs of Canada’s aboriginal peoples, particularly those in the far North

Of course, we’ll have to see how some of the proposals work out in their implementation as partnerships are required between provincial, territorial and/or aboriginal governments as well as non-governmental organizations and the private sector. But, there is much opportunity to work with.

Another set of partnerships will also have new relationships to work out as the Economic Action Plan 2013 realigns the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) into the super-department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. Again, time will tell how this new arrangement will benefit those organizations partnering with government (sometimes the expenditures more accurately are government partnering with aid and development organizations) to assist those most in need outside our borders. Government assurances are that the objective of poverty alleviation and reduction will remain central to Canada’s aid program. Hopefully, there will also be consultation with the organizations delivering the services to ensure there is no disruption in Canadian humanitarian assistance overseas. We comment on the importance of Canadian compassion overseas here.

When engagement on public policy is based in biblical principles, the politics that play out can result in the occasional fast-paced roller coaster ride of a week! We are disturbed that “It’s a girl” can be a death sentence in Canada; heartened that religiously informed voices are as entitled to engage in public policy as are any other voices; and, appreciative that those in need are not forgotten by our government, just as we know they are not forgotten by the Church.

Mr. Warawa has filed an appeal of the Subcommittee’s decision on M-408 and the Economic Action Plan 2013 will require time for the “action” part to unfold. You can expect more on both from the EFC and the bloggers at the EFC’s ActivateCFPL. Even though the week has flown by, the ride’s not over.

Well, Friday morning’s gone and it’s almost 10 am in BC, so I’m off to court!

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