22 May 2010

Canadian court defends religious freedom . . . or does it?

The Charter of Rights and Freedoms claims to guarantee all Canadians certain fundamental freedoms, including “freedom of conscience and religion” and “freedom of association.” However, following American precedent this country’s courts have tended to interpret religious freedom rather narrowly, viz., as the right of individual citizens to worship freely. Whether communities are recognized to possess religious freedom is unclear in contemporary jurisprudence, given the dominating influence of liberalism.

Take the recent case of Heintz v. Christian Horizons. Christian Horizons is a more than 40-year-old organization dedicated to the care of mentally handicapped persons. Like many confessional organizations, it has a faith and lifestyle statement which employees are required to sign. Ten years ago an employee was dismissed for not living up to this statement. She filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Tribunal, which ruled in her favour two years ago, holding that a Christian ministry could not impose such requirements on its own employees if it served the larger community rather than its own members. On appeal, however, the Ontario Divisional Court in Toronto upheld the right of Christian Horizons to adopt such a statement. Or did it?

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada immediately claimed victory for charities across the country. Others were not so sure: Faith-based charity ruling too murky, experts say. Even the EFC’s general legal counsel Don Hutchinson, writing in the National Post, was less than favourably impressed by the ruling: Heintz v Christian Horizons: Solomon would not approve. So is religious freedom in Canada secure? Despite the Charter guarantees that appear to say yes, court interpretations leave the matter open.

While we are on the subject of religious freedom, I will take the opportunity to call American readers’ attention once more to the important work being done by my friend Stanley Carlson-Thies and the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance in Washington, DC, which “works to safeguard the religious identity and faith-shaped standards and services of faith-based organizations, enabling them to make their distinctive and best contributions to the common good.” Given the high stakes involved, it deserves the moral, financial and prayer support of the larger Christian community. Right now we could use such an effort in the True North Strong and Free.

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