I have not previously dragged out an issue from one post to the next, but I will this time. I just came across two news items that further illustrate a point I made in my most recent post. Most of that post dealt with the persecution of Christians in many countries, compared with which some concerns about religious freedom in Western democracies are quite mild. But there are such concerns, and they should be taken seriously. (Perhaps the principle here is the same as the one that changed police behavior in many American cities: If you want to stop major crimes, begin by not tolerating minor infractions.)
I have always liked Canada. It is a decent democratic society, and with some justification thinks of itself as the more sensible part of North America. But it is also one of a series of countries having at the core of their national identity the insistence that they are not someone else. New Zealanders insist that they are not Australians, Portuguese that they are not Spaniards, and the core of Austrian patriotism since the collapse of the Habsburg Empire has been the idea that Austrians are not Germans (an idea that was fortified during the seven years after 1938 when Austria was actually a province of Germany). Canada owes its existence as a nation to its having been that part of British North America which did not become the United States. (Here one must distinguish between a big cultural dichotomy: While English-speaking Canadians emphasize that they are not Americans, Quebecois are busy proclaiming that they are not English-speaking Canadians.)
“O Canada!”, the Canadian national anthem, describes the country to which it pledges fealty as “The True North strong and free!” It is my impression that ordinary Canadians are quite friendly to the United States (even their language differs from the US version by only a couple of dipthongs, out and about). But for the Canadian cultural elite it is important to show that the country is more progressive, “politically correct”, than its southern neighbor allegedly dominated by reactionary extremism.
On August 7, 2013 Law and Religion Headlines, the online newsletter published at Emory University carried two stories about Canada. Both deal with individuals who vocally disagree (usually for religious reasons) with same-sex marriage as it is now legal in Canada. The first story is about a recent decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in a case titled Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission v. Whatcott. Bill Whatcott is a practical nurse, also a social conservative who has for years noisily agitated against abortion and homosexuality. Among other actions he has distributed flyers with pictures of diseases allegedly caused by gay sex. The present case originated some time ago, when the Saskatetchewan Human Rights Tribunal convicted Whatcott of discrimination against four homosexual individuals offended by his activity. The conviction was on the ground of “hate speech” (a putative crime that has also made an appearance south of the border). Whatcott was fired from his job and fined $ 17,500.- (presumably in Canadian rather than US dollars).
The Saskatchewan conviction was appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. After eighteen months, the Court ruled against Whatcott. Its reasoning was curious, to say the least. It reaffirmed the right to express opinions on the morality of sexual acts, but only if these opinions are not restricted to “persons of a certain sexual orientation”! In other words, it’s okay to speak against adultery, or polygamy, or foot fetishism—but definitely not against homosexuality! This creates a legally privileged class of people who may not be criticized, a somewhat bizarre development of the ancient concept of lese-majeste. In upholding the lower court decision, the Supreme Court has of course reaffirmed the concept of “hate speech”, which it has now described as “detestation” and “vilification”.
The other Canadian story is about Trinity Western University near Vancouver, which operates the first and only private law school in the country. It is an Evangelical institution (though it has a Catholic division, perhaps part of the burgeoning Catholic-Evangelical alliance against the militant secularism that is vividly exemplified by these stories.) TWU asks its students to adhere to a moral code, which includes an agreement to abstain “from sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman”. There have been protests against this requirement. They also reached the Canadian Council of Law Deans, which at first refused to deal with this issue, saying that this was outside its area of responsibility. It then changed its mind. It has now declared that it will refuse to recognize law degrees from TWU, because its recipients would be “unfit to practice law because of their inculcation into a ‘discriminatory’ ethos”. Needless to say, if this decision stands, it will have devastating effects on the future careers of individuals with law degrees from TWU (if it does not destroy the law school altogether). I have no information on whether further steps are contemplated to challenge the Council’s action.
There can be no doubt that homosexuals have experienced fierce oppression for long periods of time. Conversely, I believe, the ending of this oppression in Western democracies during the last few decades has been a significant step toward a more humane society. However, it would not be the first time in history that victims once liberated become oppressive in their turn. Religious freedom is one of the fundamental human rights. (I agree with those who look on it as the fundamental human right, for reasons once again spelled out recently by Robert George, the Princeton jurist who now chairs the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. I further think that the highly dubious concept of “hate speech” must not be used to undermine the religious freedom of those who dissent from current ideological orthodoxy.)