Parliament needs to find the courage to stand up for Canadians’ fundamental freedoms instead of allowing Bill C-6 to trample them. While the intent of the bill to criminalize harmful practices under the banner of “conversion therapy” is right and good, the effect of the bill would go much further, devastating our fundamental freedoms, like the freedoms of religion and conscience, of assembly, and of expression.
If the federal government were trying to criminalize only coercive or psychologically and/or physically abusive actions, there would be no controversy. Such practices grossly violate human dignity and are not justifiable based on a system of belief, religious or otherwise. Canadians would overwhelmingly agree that such abhorrent practices are dehumanizing and the government’s goals are laudable.
Sadly, Bill C-6 isn’t so targeted. It would ban any “practice, treatment or service designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual or gender identity to cisgender, or to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour.” A net so wide would ensnare adults (or teens) who freely seek help to live according to their own religious traditions, which forbid non-heterosexual behaviour, among other things. They would no longer have that legal choice. Worse yet, anyone who tried to help – a pastor, a parent, or otherwise – would face a potential five years in prison and a criminal record.
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Surely, the government doesn’t intend to limit Canadians’ choices and criminalize the expression of religious beliefs, does it?
Doing so would impinge on the fundamental freedom of Canadians to have their own thoughts, beliefs, and opinions concerning human sexuality and to express them, including through supporting those who experience same-sex attraction and struggle with who they are as men and women.
Let’s remember that our fundamental freedoms are grounded in the dignity of the human person. We bear these fundamental freedoms because we are human; they are neither given nor can they be cancelled by any government or civil authority. But governments can violate them, which is why the Charter of Rights and Freedoms reminds leaders of just how serious violations are.
Parliament does not need to trash Bill C-6. It is fixable.
The bill should clearly define conversion therapy and explicitly reflect the justice minister’s verbal commitments not to criminalize private conversations which express personal views on sexual matters. This would cover conversations with family members, school counsellors, faith leaders, pastoral counsellors, doctors, and mental health professionals. The bill should also specify that public teaching, sermons, and other presentations, going well beyond private conversations, will also continue to enjoy constitutional protection.
In our country and indeed anywhere there is human society there is going to be a great diversity of beliefs. We may disagree with how another person understands their body and their sexuality and they, in turn, might reject our religiously informed views of human sexuality. We have the freedom to hold beliefs and to have our lives guided by what we believe to be true. Of course, religious belief, like any belief a person may hold, can be twisted and distorted in order to dehumanize someone for what they believe or to justify abusive and coercive behaviour. This is bad religion.
At the most fundamental level of our democratic life, we must recognize that others who reject our beliefs bear the same dignity we do. Acknowledging another person’s dignity means we must always strive to see them, to listen to them, to understand them, and to show care for them. We can still disagree with them. This call to see, listen to, understand, and care for the other person is central to much religious expression and life in Canada. It’s at the core of what many faith leaders would call pastoral accompaniment. It’s also a key thing Bill C-6 would threaten if not duly amended.
Genuine pastoral accompaniment is informed by the free will of the person seeking guidance and by the parent, pastor, priest, rabbi, imam, or counsellor acting as a guide as the person navigates their beliefs and how they shape their life. All of us seek to understand more fully who we are and all of us (hopefully) have those people in our lives who are there to support us. These conversations are an important part of exercising religious freedom and freedom of expression. The Criminal Code must be clearly and unambiguously show them respect.
Parliament needs to stand up for our fundamental freedoms by amending Bill C-6. Ban harmful practices, of course. But leave Canadians’ fundamental freedoms untouched and able to flourish.
Rev. Dr. Andrew P.W. Bennett is Director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute and Cardus’s Director of Faith Community Engagement.
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