Monday, April 17, 2006

A Limited Victory in Saskatchewan

On April 13, a three-judge panel of the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal unanimously overturned a judgment that has brought notoriety to Canada as the country where biblical references to homosexuality were judged to be hate literature. In 1997, Hugh Owens, an evangelical Christian, placed an ad in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix in response to ads he saw announcing an upcoming gay pride week. The ad consisted of two stickmen holding hands, covered by a circle with a line drawn through it. Next to the stick figures were citations for four Biblical passages condemning homosexuality as sinful. Three gay men brought a complaint against Owens and the paper before the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, claiming "their dignity was affronted" by the ad, and that they "suffered in respect of their feelings and self-respect." A tribunal agreed with them and in 2002, the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench upheld the ruling, stating that the Biblical passages Owens cited in his ad were clearly hateful. The court reasoned that since no major religion sanctions hatefulness among its adherents, the passages could not possibly be religious, and so were exempt from Saskatchewan's human rights law that protected religious expression.

On April 13, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal reversed this ridiculous decision. The decision written by Justice Bob Richards said that while the ad was "bluntly presented and doubtlessly upsetting to many," it did not violate the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. The Court of Appeal also said that Courts should exercise care when dealing with foundational religious writings.

The Voice of the Martyrs, of course, welcomes this decision as an affirmation of religious freedom; one long overdue. The past few years have seen an increasing number of cases like this brought against Christians in Canada by those who seem determined to silence the Church's ability to speak against homosexual behaviour.

We should not, however, be overly enthusiastic about this ruling, as significant as it is. In the ruling by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal, Justice Richards also wrote that "it is significant that the advertisement in issue here was published in 1997 and, thus, in the middle of an ongoing national debate about how Canadian legal and constitutional regimes should or should not accommodate sexual identities…. Parliament would not pass legislation to make government programs and benefits available on an equal basis to gay and lesbian couples until three years after the advertisement appeared….When Mr. Owens’ message was published the judicial sanctioning of same-sex marriage in Saskatchewan was still seven years in the future and its sanctioning by the Supreme Court of Canada was eight years in the future. This does not mean that a newly won right to be free from discrimination should be accorded less vigorous protection than similar rights based on more historically established grounds such as race and religion. But, for purposes of applying a provision like s. 14(1)(b) of the Code, it is important to consider Mr. Owens’ advertisement in the context of the time and circumstances in which it was published."

In other words, if Mr. Owens were to publish his ad today, the ruling might very well have been different. He was fortunate that he ran it at a time when homosexual rights were less fixed in Canadian law and society and the debate was still ongoing. That, the court said, is not the case today.

This is a troubling caveat. Whether you agree with his methods or not, we must state unequivocally that Mr. Owens is no less entitled to express his religious beliefs today than in 1997, public opinion and legislation notwithstanding. Just because a belief is deemed less established today than in the past does not mean that it is less worthy of being protected. Indeed, the opposite is the case. Now, more than ever, it is the rights of those who would express dissenting opinions in our society that need protection.

The decision by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal is a victory, to be sure, but a limited one. This is not the time to moderate our diligence in upholding religious freedom in Canada. To that end, The Voice of the Martyrs will be releasing a new video in a few months entitled "Faith Under Fire: Canada." And we urge you to continue to pray for our nation and especially for its political leaders and judiciary.

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