Redefining Freedom of Religion

27 Sep 2016 Redefining Freedom of Religion

On the feature this week, an interview with Cardus president Michael Van Pelt, further expanding on the story we brought you last week on a proposal by Universities Canada to impose a new “non-discrimination policy” on Christian universities.

Click here to read more.

In the news:

There has been some movement in the dispute over education policies in Alberta.  The Education Minister has appointed a third-party inquiry to look into two Baptist schools near Edmonton, who are being scrutinized because the Provincial Education Ministry does not feel they comply with the Province’s new guidelines on transgenderism and Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. Click here to read the story.

ARPA Executive Director Mark Penninga had an op-ed published in the Edmonton Journal last week on the issue of whether the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is actually designed to protect the rights of children to establish those GSA clubs. You can read his piece here. Click here to read the story.

The province of BC passed an amendment to its Human Rights Code earlier this year, adding transgenderism as a “prohibited ground” for discrimination. Now, the issue is working its way into the education system. However, ARPA Education Policy Consultant Harry Moes says the BC government’s approach to this issue is vastly different than what’s being done in Alberta. Click here to read the story.

ARPA’s grassroots manager was one of the speakers at a rally at the Ontario legislature last week on that province’s controversial sex education curriculum. We have a clip from his speech on the program this week; you can see the full speech here. Click here to read the story.

And a billboard erected by the Kelowna Right to Life Society has been vandalized again; the fourth time that’s happened since it went up earlier this year. Click here to read the story.


ARPA Canada Executive Director, Mark Penninga

ARPA Executive Director Mark Penninga had an op-ed published in the Edmonton Journal on the Alberta education dispute last week. Penninga says he was prompted to write the piece in response to a broadly-held misconception that somehow the government is mandated specifically to safeguard the so-called Charter Rights of students in the province. He says that’s a misrepresentation of what the Charter actually says. “The Charter does not apply between private citizens. If you read it, you’ll see that it specifies that it applies to Parliament and the Legislatures. It’s supposed to be a shield that protects Canadians from inappropriate government intrusion.” Because of that, Penninga says, “a good case could be made that it’s actually the [government] of Alberta that’s violating the Charter because it’s trying to force Christian Schools to undermine their faith.”

You can read the full op-ed here.


Alberta Education Minister, David Eggen

Alberta Education Minister David Eggen has appointed an inquiry panel to look into the controversy surrounding those two Baptist schools near Edmonton, since the government is not happy with their response to the Province’s new guidelines on transgenderism and Gay-Straight Alliances. Eggen says a written response from Pastor Brian Coldwell, the chair of the Independent Baptist Christian Education Society, wasn’t satisfactory, because it didn’t include a specific commitment to address transgendered students, or to have the Society’s schools provide gay-straight alliances if students asked for them. ARPA Education Policy Consultant Harry Moes says the appointment of that inquiry could be seen as a good thing. “I always think it’s a win for any type of situation of conflict when people are actually going to meet face to face,” Moes says. “It’s one thing to discuss an issue via the news media, but it’s quite a different thing when you meet face to face and you can actually explain… what undergirds your faith-based position.”

There’s a lot at stake in this case. Eggen has said he’ll consider cutting funding and even the registration of the Baptist School Society if there’s no resolution. The society received about $1.5 million dollars from the Alberta government last year.


BC Education Minister Mike Bernier

The BC government is also dealing with transgenderism in the education system.  The BC legislature met in special session earlier this summer to amend the BC Human Rights Code. The amendment specifically moved to include transgenderism as a prohibited ground for discrimination.  Shortly after that, Education Minister Mike Bernier sent a memo to all schools in the Province,  asking them how they intended to comply with the new legislation.  But ARPA education consultant Harry Moes says the BC approach in its relationship with private and Christian schools is markedly different than what’s been happening in Alberta, and is based on the notion of dialogue.  “We have never experienced – in my 42 years as an administrator – where the Ministry comes down heavy-handedly and says ‘Thus you shall do.'” Moes says the dialogue on the issue will continue for some time, and ARPA will be working “on the ground” with Christian schools in BC to formulate a response to the memo.

A final outcome on this file could be delayed by a provincial election in BC next spring.


ARPA Canada Grassroots Manager, Colin Postma

Several hundred people showed up at the Ontario legislature last week for a protest against that province’s controversial sex education program.  The main theme shared by almost all of the speakers at the rally was that the curriculum is age-inappropriate; that it teaches “too much, too soon”, and that the province is undermining parental rights by imposing that curriculum.

ARPA’s grassroots manager, Colin Postma, drew an analogy between the curriculum and several other issues, saying are upset “for the same reason that they would be upset if the government was telling our children to experiment with alcohol or tobacco.  These are legal substances that adults can use as they like according to government regulations, and yet, we would be furious with an education policy that advocated experimenting with these substances on our children.”  Postma says “for some reason the government seems to see sex in some vacuum where the normal precautions just don’t apply.”

You can see Postma’s full speech on the ARPA Facebook page.

Organizers conceded in advance of the protest that they really didn’t expect the government to cancel the curriculum.  Rather, they said, the demonstration was a way to keep the issue front and centre in advance of an upcoming provincial election in Ontario.


A pro-life billboard erected on a highway outside Kelowna, BC, was vandalized again earlier this month.  People who didn’t like the message on that billboard – a message that juxtaposed a picture of a puppy with that of an unborn child – spray-painted obscenities, swastikas, and other graffiti on it.  This marks the fourth time this has happened since the billboard went up early this summer.  Pro-Life Kelowna President Marlon Bartram says it’s been frustrating, but the billboard company has fixed the damage every time.  And he says they’re determined to keep the sign up for as long as possible.  “”I think if we just let them use their illegal tactics to pressure us into silence – I think that’s wrong.  There’s lives at stake here, and babies are being killed.  No matter what they do to us, what they’re doing to those babies is far, far worse.”

Bartram says every time the billboard is vandalized, they see an increase in donations to help pay for cleanup, and to keep the sign in place, and he adds they’ve now placed a security camera near the site.


Cardus President, Michael Van Pelt

As we told you on Lighthouse News last week, faith-based universities in Canada could be under the threat of losing their accreditation and standing in the country’s academic community. A group called Universities Canada is looking at a policy change to mandate a “non-discrimination policy” for all of its 97 member universities across the country. That policy would, among other things, bar membership in the group for universities who hold to certain views on things such as homosexuality. The policy, which explicitly discounts Charter rights to Freedom of Religion, was first unveiled in an article written by the President of Cardus, Michael Van Pelt, in their Convivium magazine.

Mr. Van Pelt was the guest on the feature interview for this week’s program.

LN: Michael, welcome to Lighthouse News.

MVP: Al, it’s good to be with you.

Let’s talk a little bit about the story we had last week about Universities Canada and their accreditation process. A bit of history is in order here. A lot of people don’t even know this organization exists. Who are they, and how much practical power do they really wield within academia in Canada?

Universities Canada is essentially a business association. It represents some 97 universities in Canada. The members are the Presidents of the universities, which indicates it’s a very high-level organization. It is the gold star of university associations. You need to be a part of it to be “in”. If your university isn’t part of Universities Canada, you have all kinds of disadvantages that you have to live with.

Such as what?

Well Universities Canada first of all – if you look at their own internal budget – they have a budget of approximately $20-million dollars. I think approximately $7-million of that comes from government. They distribute substantial amounts of money on behalf of government. Their certification process is a key certification for universities to gain credibility beyond their own communities. (Membership is a) key criteria with respect to universities accessing insurance. Many different advantage and privileges that universities have access to through Universities Canada would be at stake if you’re not a member.

Ok. So let’s move to the policy proposal that Cardus discovered, (uncovered, unveiled, whatever you want to call it), in the article that you wrote. What exactly is the Board looking at and what does it actually mean?

“Religious belief is one thing, and the right to religious belief
is another thing, but the right to religion and freedom of religion
is not just about ‘belief’.  It’s about belief and practice.
It’s about living out what it is that you hold deeply to be true…”

The Board of Directors is actually presenting on October 26th. Two things. A Bylaw and then supporting the bylaw a Policy that is a lot more descriptive. The bylaw is generally a non-discrimination bylaw that kind of sets, at it were, the motherhood-and-apple-pie of certain rights and privileges that members would have to adhere to. And there’s a number of challenges in the bylaw, as there is in the policy itself. This is rooted on a discussion and I think significant pressure on Universities Canada to create a criteria for which certain universities can or cannot come into their fold as it were. Quite frankly, it is largely targeted to the faith-based universities. The first thing it does is – in the bylaw – it actually does not use the historic understanding of freedom of religion with respect to articulating the freedoms and the rights of the members. It actually talks just about “religious belief“. Which is really interesting to those who are active, faithful players. Religious belief is one thing, and the right to religious belief is another thing, but the right to religion and freedom of religion is not just about “belief”. It’s about belief and practice. It’s about living out what it is that you hold deeply to be true, whether it’s in the context of Church or whether it’s in the context of community (or) whether it’s in the context of your family. This is critical. We start undermining what it actually means to have freedom of religion, and just call it freedom of religious belief, and we’re traveling down a road that I’m not sure we want to do in Canada.

 You know, we’ve got the Legal Leaders for Diversity, we’ve got the Trinity Western challenge which most observers say in one form or other will end up before the Supreme Court. I almost want to ask a political question here. Could this action be seen as kind of a provisional blow in case the LLD thing fails and the Trinity Western thing ends up going in favour of the university? Is this another way to achieve the same thing that is being fought in the Trinity Western case right now?

Two things, Al. Number one, this is, in some (ways), a much more challenging and all-encompassing direction. The ability for a university to operate with credibility and with a robustness without certification into Universities Canada makes it very, very difficult. It goes all the way to affecting how they deliver their athletic programs. So this is actually a big deal for those universities, and in some sense is even more challenging than (the) issue we would have at Trinity Western with respect to the Law School.

The second piece on this is the implications of a voluntary association creating membership criteria that excludes other religious organizations based on the rights that they have today in society – based on religion – is problematic into the future. It’s not gonna just apply to universities, but who else would it apply to in the future? And that’s a real concern for me. That’s why this is not just a concern for people who are in the university setting. It’s a concern for any Canadian who’s involved in a civil society organization that may have a religious tradition to it. Remember, we have 88,000 charitable organizations in Canada, the majority of which are faith-based.  So the concern extends far beyond the universities.

Here’s the other way to look at this. Let’s just flip the question around. Let’s ask Universities Canada why they would do such a thing as they’re planning now when they know perfectly well that the Trinity Western case is going through the courts? Why would Universities Canada do behind closed doors in this way what – quite frankly – the Law Societies are having to do in the courts? I don’t get that, and we need to be publicly asking a lot of questions from many different angles to be able to challenge Universities Canada – respectfully – on what their thinking is here.

LN: Which kind of moves to my final question. Universities Canada is not a political entity in the sense of the accountability that you would have with a Member of Parliament for example. Given that, what can people do to affect the outcome of the decision that’s coming at that October board meeting?

They need one-third of the university presidents – of the 97 university presidents – to say ‘You know what? Go back to the drawing board on this bylaw. It’s not the right thing to do right now.’ And get it tabled. That’s the easiest approach, or create an amendment. It’s all up to the university presidents. And (doing everything) we can think of (to encourage) university presidents across this country to revisit this idea and to respect the basic religious freedoms which we already have today will be the way to help us to ensure that this doesn’t get passed.

Michael, we’ll be following this one closely. Thank you very much.

 You’re welcome.

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  • Ron Voss
    Posted at 13:56h, 28 September

    I am not sure that I would describe the situation in Alberta as “some movement in the dispute” or that the inquiry is a good thing as they are “actually going to meet face to face”. Pastor Coldwell had asked for a face to face meeting with the Minister of Education but it never happened. I see this inquiry as a way for the minister to buy time and submit the school to an investigation, not a face to face discussion, which I would classify more as bullying and intimidation.

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