Sunday, December 11, 2005

What Does Freedom of Religion Mean?

In Canada's Constitution, Freedom of conscience and religion is listed as a fundamental right in section 2. The full wording is as follows:

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

a) freedom of conscience and religion;

b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

c) freedom of peaceful assembly; and

d) freedom of association.


Recently, an assortment of "Christian" organizations have begun to complain that their religious freedoms are under attack by vehicles such as human rights complaints, they complain bitterly when a ruling goes against 'them', accusing the judiciary of being biased.

When outfits like Focus on the Family, the NRA and American Family Association are trying to inject themselves into Canada's political dialogue, either directly or indirectly, I start to get worried.

Why? For several reasons - first, some of these organizations represent a particularly nasty view of the world - one where they are "correct" and the rest of the world must bullied and hectored until they align with the prescribed world view. Oh yes, and if you should dare to buck them, expect to be marginalized. A good example of this is in the recent activities of FOTF and the AFA where they are boycotting companies because they do business with the GLBT community - and in particular with publications that circulate within those subgroups.

At first, this didn't particularly upset me - after all, they are free to object to business practices, just as I am - until I started to think about it a little further. First of all, I sat there and realized that they were essentially complaining about something that is none of their business (literally). Really - what the heck is FOTF doing reading GLBT publications? Why would they care?

Then, as you dig further through their sites and literature, you start to notice a few other patterns:

1) Women should "submit" to their husband's will.
2) Sex - and sexuality - are things to be carefully metered out.
3) If it's in scripture, you should believe it

I could go on, the list is nearly endless. The problem with all of this is that there is no space for reasoned thinking. If the church tells you it is so, it must be so. Wait a minute - if my pastor tells me that the earth is flat, I must believe that to be the case, in spite of the evidence to the contrary? Should the church I attend tell me that I must turn my parrot free because it is "unnatural" to keep pet birds, must I do so - knowing full well that the poor creature would die - he's never had to forage for food, migrate or compete for resources - nor is he adapted to Canada's somewhat frigid winters.

Logic aside, it seems to me that Freedom of Religion, like all other freedoms is a personal freedom. As an individual, or even as a group, we are all free to follow our sense of right and wrong as we see fit. As long as I don't break any laws (e.g. steal from your business, or vandalize your home), it really doesn't matter, does it. Some varieties of "Christians" claim that it is their duty as faithful to proselytize - to bring the word of Christ to the unconverted. Yes and no - if I tell you to 'bugger off' because I'm not interested, then your right to proselytize at my doorstep has just ended. - Period.

The objection that these "Christian" groups raise seems to be that any constraint on their ability to sit in judgement over others is an unreasonable limitation of their "religious freedoms". For them, it is unreasonable to add sexual minorities to Canada's hate crimes statutes (as one example), after all, their interpretation of the Bible is clear that sexual minorities should be "saved from their sins". They view sexual minorities not as otherwise normal people, but as people who are intrinsically disordered.

The freedoms guaranteed in the Canadian Constitution are first and foremost Individual Freedoms. The religious groups need to recognize that although we grant churches a unique position by permitting them tax-exempt status, that unique status does not extend beyond the doors of the church - literally or metaphorically. We live in a society today with a plethora of different faith traditions - many at odds with each other, both in practice and history. The religious right-wing needs to learn to recognize that not all of the society shares their view, and bullying people will not change that reality. In a world with a multitude of faiths, it is clear that there are no "absolutes" of 'the true faith'. Faith groups are free to spread their word within their congregations, and to willing audiences (I'm sure things are said within "Aryan Church" congregations that are little more than thinly disguised racism, but it doesn't make it out into the greater public dialogue). But beyond that, it is not their right, any more than mine, to sit in moral judgement over others.

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