We’ve become habituated to associating loss of freedom with decisive, often violent, acts.
It’s worth, though, heeding the emerging voices warning us that freedom’s loss is as much, perhaps even more, a function of shifts in language almost too subtle for timely detection.
Reflecting in the last while on commentary from Andrew Bennett, Albertos Polizogopoulos and David Anderson, I’ve begun to wonder whether the bold assaults on liberty that confront us daily aren’t, paradoxically, obscuring devices for far more troubling work being done by quiet words. Bennett, for example, recently pointed out how a seemingly simply name change for a government office should raise flags for us about agendas being pursued.
In an exclusive interview with the Catholic Register, Canada’s former Ambassador for Religious Freedom – and now most welcome new colleague at Cardus – noted that his former bailiwick has been recast by the Liberal government into a muddle called the Office of Freedom, Human Rights and Inclusion.
He professed bafflement at what the new name even means – beyond justification for tripling the previous Office of Religious Freedom’s budget and diminishing its work on religious liberty issues. But, choosing his words with diplomatic care, he suggested that State-mandated “inclusion” and God-given individual human freedom sound a lot like wholly opposed concepts.
“I don’t know what inclusion is and I don’t know what its relationship is to religious freedom,” Bennett told The Catholic Register’s Deborah Gyapong.
“I think that a lot of different faith communities, when they see the diminishment of focus on religious freedom by the current government and the lumping of it in with this rather nebulous concept of inclusion, a lot of eyebrows will be raised. It’s a trend that all Canadians should be concerned about.”
In fact, as lawyer Albertos Polizogopoulos told me in an interview following the recent Ontario Appeal Court decision in the Trinity Western University case, what we should be concerned about is the implacable use of “inclusion” to exclude Canadians from their Charter Rights around religious freedom.
Polizogopoulos, an already seasoned legal advocate for religious freedom despite being only in his early thirties, was less alarmed by the Appeal Court’s finding against Trinity Western than were some of the colleagues with whom he argued the university’s case.
He notes that the Court’s upholding of the Law Society of Upper Canada’s refusal to accredit graduates from TWU’s proposed Christian law school will have little jurisprudential value because it is so specific to the Ontario legislative framework and the process followed by the Law Society of Upper Canada.
The vast majority of law societies elsewhere in Canada raised no objections to Trinity’s community covenant that obliges students to abstain from sex outside the bounds of heterosexual marriage. In B.C. and Nova Scotia, legal battles against TWU have so far been decided in its favor.
So, he says, once TWU’s law school begins turning out graduates, they will be able to work as lawyers across Canada, including in Ontario. Moreover, he adds, even in finding against TWU, the Ontario Appeal Court did determine that the school’s Charter rights of religious freedom were violated by the Law Society’s decision.
But it’s in squaring that circle that things become troubling indeed. For in order to uphold the Law Society’s refusal to accredit TWU grads, despite that being a violation of religious freedom, the Ontario Court had to smuggle in – my phrase, not Polizogopoulous’ – the notion of an overriding “public benefit” that lets mandated ideals of “inclusion” trump the freedom to live according to one’s belief.
In fact, Polizogopoulos argued in his submission to the Court on behalf of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and Christian Higher Education Canada that existing law balances “inclusion” and “freedom” by providing so-called carve-outs for areas where public benefits and religious belief conflict. He notes that all clergy in Ontario, for example, need the public benefit of licensing by the province in order to perform marriages. But the laws that were changed to open up marriage to same-sex couples contain specific language that exempts unwilling clergy from having to perform gay marriages.
“The (exemptions) exist because the Charter requires them to exist. If Ontario required priests to perform same-sex marriages, that would be a breach of the Charter. The Supreme Court says so. If a priest doesn’t forfeit his religious freedom by seeking the public benefit of getting a license to officiate marriages and performing the public function of officiating marriages, why in the world does Trinity Western have to forfeit its religious freedom for the public benefit of having its law school graduates (accredited) by the Law Society?”
At the very least, the Appeal Court has introduced a “novel” notion of public benefit – one that has no evident basis in Canadian jurisprudence because the Court cited no Canadian case law to support its conclusion, he adds.
More critically, it has used the Trinity Western ruling to set in motion a shift in language that will gain momentum through future decisions so that State-mandated “inclusion” and “public benefit” and become inextricably conjoined to negate religious freedom. And virtually no one even noticed.
For Saskatchewan Conservative MP David Anderson, that under-the-radar process is deeply troubling even in a world where overt and horrific religious violence captures headlines and eyeballs.
As the Opposition critic for Human Rights and Religious Freedoms, Anderson is all too familiar with global persecution and brutality. He sits on the Commons subcommittee on human rights that recently released a harrowing report on the torment of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority at the hands of the country’s Buddhist majority. We are not, he readily acknowledges, Burma, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Iran.
“But at the same time, we set ourselves forward as a beacon of democracy and freedom and equality, and we need to make sure those principles are applied equally as well: that we don’t talk tolerance while we’re being intolerant ourselves.”
And he fears in the shifting ground under Trinity Western, as well as denials of religious and conscience rights around issues such as abortion and euthanasia, a dark future ahead.
We need to pay attention to the way language is subtly changed to increasingly deny freedom to believe, he says. We need, fundamentally, to decide whether inclusion is a euphemism for intolerance and exclusion of those who happen to see the world differently. “We need a debate about whether we have that capacity to disagree or not.
That really is the freedom to believe.” That debate begins with knowing not just what happened, but with what is truly being said.