“Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion all have a double aspect — freedom of thought and freedom of action.”
– Supreme Court Justice Frank Murphy
Canada has become quietly authoritarian, its government and courts increasingly persecuting a cadre of its minority citizens. No, victims aren’t subject to arrest, nor are concentration camps being opened. Rather, this is a soft despotism — authorized by law — that compels victims to choose between their consciences and full participation in Canadian society.
Who are these wronged Canadians, you ask? Not racial minorities. Not refugees. Not sexual subgroups. Those vulnerable populations are amply protected and embraced in society. No, the victims of Canada’s soft authoritarianism are religious people who are being systematically and officially discriminated against because they refuse to violate their faith principles that conflict with reigning secularist dogmas.
Forcing Catholic Doctors to Euthanize
The most explicit assaults on religious freedom have been mounted in the medical fields against Catholic (and other) religious professionals and institutions. The locus of the persecution has been the legalization of euthanasia. In 2015, the Canadian Supreme Court conjured a broadly defined right to be killed by doctors when diagnosed with a serious medical condition that causes “irremediable suffering.” Parliament soon passed a national law legalizing this form of homicide, subject to weak limitations. Since health care is administered at the provincial level, each of Canada’s provinces also passed euthanasia-enabling statutes.
That presented a significant problem for faithful medical professionals and church-affiliated institutions. Most notably, the Catholic Church forbids euthanasia. Thus, national legalization raised a crucial question of whether or not religiously dissenting doctors and Catholic medical facilities should be granted conscience exemptions from participation in doctor-administered death.
The Supreme Court’s ruling left that issue for another day — as did the federal statute. Not so at the provincial level. After concentrated political pressure from religious organizations and citizens, most provinces crafted conscience exemptions allowing dissenting medical professionals to escape participation in euthanasia, while also publishing lists of M.D.s willing to administer “medical aid in dying” (MAID), the official euphemism for euthanasia in Canada.
But Ontario’s parliament chose the intolerant route recommended by the province’s medical regulatory body, the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. This ethics rule requires all doctors approached by a legally qualified patient for euthanasia to either kill the patient (pursuant to the law’s procedures) or provide an “effective referral,” meaning to personally procure a doctor or certified nurse practitioner that the dissenting physician knows to be willing to do the deed.
Perceiving such participation to be a grievous sin with eternal implications, some Catholic doctors sued, arguing that requiring them to be complicit in euthanasia violated the fundamental Charter right to “freedom of conscience and religion” — a protection more robust than the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment’s guarantee of the “free exercise” of religion.
Considering the explicit guarantee in the Charter — and given the unoppressive “list” alternative crafted in other provinces — the case appeared strong. But with Canada secularizing at Mach speed, the Ontario courts were far more interested in forcing faithful doctors to yield to contemporary secular values than in protecting their Charter right to religious freedom. Accordingly, a trial court and court of appeals both ruled that the right to “equal and equitable access” to all legal health care paid for by Canada’s socialized medical system, including euthanasia, abortion, and interventions for gender dysphoria — a right not protected in the Charter — trumps doctors’ enumerated “freedom of conscience and religion.”
Think about what this means. Unless the national Supreme Court intervenes, Ontario doctors face legal compulsion to be complicit in the taking of innocent human life. The only alternatives are restricting their practice of medicine to fields like podiatry in which such requests are unlikely or leaving the profession altogether. If that isn’t oppression, I don’t know what else to call it.
Barring Public Employees From Wearing Religious Symbols
Health care isn’t the only area of contemporary Canadian society in which religious freedom is under significant threat. Quebec recently enacted a law — Bill 21 — establishing the province as a “lay state” (laicity). Blind to irony, the law provides:
The laicity of the State is based on the following principles: (1) the separation of State and religions; (2) the religious neutrality of the State; (3) the equality of all citizens; and (4) freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.
Somehow, that last part gets lost in the secularist fog.
The law prohibits public employees “in authority” from wearing any religious symbol or article of clothing on the job. This means that an Orthodox Jewish government supervisor can’t wear a yarmulke in the office, a Sikh policeman is banned from wearing his turban while in uniform, a Christian parliamentarian a crucifix on a necklace that shows outside her clothes, or a Muslim schoolteacher a hijab.
Supporters of the restriction claim that the mere wearing of religious garb or symbols by public servants constitutes proselytization and the appearance of the state’s imprimatur to the worker’s faith. Good grief. Do secularists really think people are so weak that merely seeing a religious symbol worn by a government worker threatens them with the imposition of a theocracy? Of course not. The law’s supporters are simply intolerant of religion and want to drive faith out of the public square by forcing believers to choose between their careers and their faith.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims and others have sued to invalidate the law as against the Charter. True civil libertarians would support the plaintiffs. But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has abjectly refused to authorize a federal legal intervention in the case. Time will tell whether the courts of hyper-secular Quebec will protect the religious freedom of the province’s public workers — but given the Ontario rulings refusing to protect the Charter rights of euthanasia-rejecting doctors, I am not optimistic.
Refusing Scholastic Accreditation to a Christian Law School
Canada legalized same-sex marriage in 2005 amidst promises that religious dissenters would be protected. That was then. Now, a Christian university that supports the traditional view of marriage was advised that its religious principles — not potential academic deficiencies — will prevent accreditation for a law school the university planned to open. From the account of the controversy published in the Wall Street Journal by Trinity Western University’s president, Bob Kuhn:
Three provincial law societies — similar to state bar associations in the U.S. — said no in March 2014. Everyone agreed that Trinity’s program met all the requirements and would train competent lawyers. But law societies across the country held public meetings during which Trinity’s students and faculty were called bigots and worse.
Trinity sued. It won at the lower court levels. But in 2018, the Canadian Supreme Court — the same tribunal that legalized euthanasia throughout Canada — decreed that the university’s mandatory faith-based community standards for students could “harm the dignity” of members of LGBT students. Never mind that any gay student would know before entering that the university upholds traditional Christian morality, and never mind that Trinity is allowed to train public school teachers. Kuhn complained, “the court concluded that this potential dignitary harm to future LGBT law students was ‘concrete,’ while the infringement on Trinity’s religious liberty from refusing to accredit its qualified law program was ‘minimal.’ ” I suppose so — if preventing graduates from becoming licensed because their school was unaccredited is somehow construed as “minimal.” Not surprisingly, Trinity canceled plans to open the law school, a victim of blatant secularist oppression.
Forcing Religious Organizations to Pledge Support of Abortion to Receive Federal Grants
Trudeau’s national administration has also cracked down on religious freedom. Until last year, the federal government awarded summer financial “jobs grants” to the country’s nonprofit organizations — including those with religious affiliations — in a non-discriminatory manner. But at the end of 2017, Trudeau added an invidious restriction: In order to be eligible for a grant, the applying organization must pledge to support abortion and the full panoply of LGBT civil rights agendas. This meant religious organizations that endorsed those policies remained eligible to receive federal funds, but those with faith beliefs forbidding such support would be denied — blatant discrimination based on religious doctrine. This year, the regulation was softened to require applicant organizations to attest that they do not “work” to oppose abortion and LGBT rights. That’s a distinction without a difference as the invidious impact — based solely on whether the government approves or disapproves of church dogma — remains the same.
Mark Pickup, a prominent Canadian Catholic pro-life and disability rights activist and blogger at Human Life Matters, worked for the federal government jobs program during its early days in the late ’70s. He told me, “The [original] program did not have any conditions that might eliminate churches or religious organizations from applying. In fact, we relied on them to provide quality, well-managed programs for students during the summer months.” Indeed, Pickup recalls that many of those receiving jobs grants included religious organizations with traditional views on social issues.
Pickup recalls, “We depended upon these and other faith-based groups to employ new immigrants, train unskilled workers to develop job skills, as well as employment and life skills training and settlement.” Those kinds of services have nothing to do with abortion or LGBT inclusion, or whatever a given organization’s policy or advocacy positions might be about those issues — meaning that the real victims of the government’s discriminatory policy will be the needy people who would have been served by religious organizations that adhere to traditional religious precepts but now will not receive that succor because of barefaced religious discrimination.
Canada’s growing hostility to freedom of religion — policies that have also been advocated by many U.S. secularists — demonstrates a concentrated intent to shrivel traditional notions of freedom of religion into what is sometimes called “freedom of worship,” meaning, for example, that Catholics can believe that Communion is the true body and blood of Christ without concern about government interference. But what good is that? As Justice Frank Murphy, quoted above, well understood, freedom of religion is meaningless if it doesn’t also include the right of individuals and institutions to act — or refrain from acting — based on their faith. A society that coerces religious adherents into a secularist straitjacket as the price of full participation in civic life is not free.
Award-winning author Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism.