Are religious freedoms in Canada in jeopardy?
By Susan Ponting and Anson Liski
The Canadian government’s Summer Jobs Program has forced some business owners and some religious organizations to legally challenge the attestation
“Sarnia Concrete makes concrete… The government is forcing them to take a position on something they don’t have a position on.” ~ Albertos Polizogopoulos, Partner, Vincent Dagenais Gibson – Lawyers and Advocates
“The government is not living up to Canada’s pluralist ideals, if we are truly committed to a pluralist society we have to not simply tolerate differences we need to respect them.” ~ Andrew Bennett, Program Director, Cardus Law
A growing uproar over the government’s required attestation for student summer jobs is heating up again, and it’s worth asking at this point, are both sides hearing each other?
There are currently five Charter challenges by private businesses backed by the newly launched advocacy organization, Free To Do Business (Remuda Building Ltd., Saturn Machine Works Ltd., Vantage Trailer Sales Inc., The Woodsource Inc., Sarnia Concrete.)
There are also challenges by religious organizations, Toronto Right to Life Association and Power to Change.
Under the counsel of Albertos Polizogopoulos, the private businesses supported by Free To Do Business – a newly formed organization with no religious affiliation – claims that the attestation required for the Summer Jobs program grants violate their freedom of conscience, expression, thought, belief, and opinion. They argue that the attestation includes language that forces these private, non-partisan corporations, to take on the opinions of the government.
The businesses, represented by Polizogopoulos, are challenging the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with the key position that their case is different than those of religious organizations where, “the government is forcing them to believe something contrary to what their purpose of existing is.” Polizogopoulos insists, “This is not a religious issue for these companies, it is an issue of the freedom to not have an opinion.”
As stated by the attestation on the government’s application form, these businesses in turn have said that they do not want to take a stand on, “…reproductive rights, and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” The businesses also state that they neither, agree or disagree with the opinions of the government, but maintain that their fundamental right to withhold their opinions and remain neutral has been violated.
Polizogopoulos said in an interview with Context, “Sarnia Concrete makes concrete… The government is forcing them to take a position on something they don’t have a position on.”
To some, however, the attestation is a clear and direct violation of their freedom of religion.
Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennet, program director with Cardus Law, says that, “by forcing Canadian businesses to take a stance on political/moral issues, the government is not living up to Canada’s pluralist ideals. If we are truly committed to a pluralist society, we have to not simply tolerate differences, we need to respect them. In this way, by not respecting different views, the religious identity that informs the world view of many Canadians is being violated.”
In opposition of the Canada Summer Jobs attestation, close to 50,000 Canadians have signed a petition on citizengo.org.
As the controversy grows, Bennet takes a firm stand against the courts/Canadian government dictating how Christians should live their public lives, “No one should be telling Christians how to behave or live their faith – it is to the precepts of the Gospel – what Jesus has commanded us to do. When people look at the Canada Summer Jobs fiasco, or they look at the Trinity Western University case, they should absolutely not take that as a cue to back away from the public square.”
Bennett says, “It is up to the Christian individual, organizations, and faith leaders to choose how they live their faith publicly.”
The Canadian Council of Christian Charities said they are considering launching a legal challenge with 20 charities involved. Two cases have already been filed by the Toronto Right to Life Association and Power to Change.
Bennet says that freedom of religion should not be lost on the attestation challenges, as the fundamental freedoms, including religion, are bound up with one and other, “I think a lot of people in our society wrongly want to restrict religious freedom to be only the freedom to do what you want within your property, for instance within the four walls of our churches. As Christians know – coming together in church on a Sunday, we receive great strength from the word of God. But then we are called to go out into the world and go fully into Christ – religious freedom is how we act on those beliefs.”
Freedom of conscience and expression belong to every Canadian just as much as freedom of religion belongs to Christians – Canadians enjoy these freedoms together. Bennet adds, “Freedom of religion and conscious is for everyone – It is the freedom to practice a life philosophy.”
No matter how the courts rule in relation to the Free To Do Business cases, the decision on the Canada Summer Jobs attestation will affect the freedoms of all Canadians – religious or not.