The Obama administration had recently ordered almost every employer and insurer in the country to provide sterilization and contraceptives, including some abortion-inducing drugs, in their health plans. However, never before has the federal government forced individuals and organizations to go out into the marketplace and buy a product that violates their conscience. All of this in a land where the free exercise of religion ranks first in the Bill of Rights.
A vocal opponent of the Obama plan, Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, presented an engaging parable to US House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform.
Once upon a time, a new law is proposed, so that any business that serves food must serve pork. There is a narrow exception for kosher catering halls attached to synagogues, since they serve mostly members of that synagogue, but kosher delicatessens are still subject to the mandate.
The Orthodox Jewish community—whose members run kosher delis and many other restaurants and grocers besides—expresses its outrage at the new government mandate. And they are joined by others who have no problem eating pork—not just the many Jews who eat pork, but people of all faiths—because these others recognize the threat to the principle of religious liberty. They recognize as well the practical impact of the damage to that principle. They know that, if the mandate stands, they might be the next ones forced—under threat of severe government sanction—to violate their most deeply held beliefs, especially their unpopular beliefs.
Meanwhile, those who support the mandate respond, ""But pork is good for you. It is, after all, the other white meat."" Other supporters add, ""So many Jews eat pork, and those who don't should just get with the times."" Still others say, ""Those Orthodox are just trying to impose their beliefs on everyone else.""
Those arguments fail in the public debate, because people widely recognize the following.
First, although people may reasonably debate whether pork is good for you, that's not the question posed by the nationwide pork mandate. Instead, the mandate generates the question whether people who believe—even if they believe in error—that pork is not good for you, should be forced by government to serve pork within their very own institutions. In a nation committed to religious liberty and diversity, the answer, of course, is no.
Second, the fact that some (or even most) Jews eat pork is simply irrelevant. The fact remains that some Jews do not—and they do not out of their most deeply held religious convictions. Does the fact that large majorities in society—even large majorities within the protesting religious community—reject a particular religious belief make it permissible for the government to weigh in on one side of that dispute? Does it allow government to punish that minority belief with its coercive power? In a nation committed to religious liberty and diversity, the answer, of course, is no.
Third, the charge that the Orthodox Jews are imposing their beliefs on others has it exactly backwards. Again, the question generated by a government mandate is whether the government will impose its belief that eating pork is good on objecting Orthodox Jews. Meanwhile, there is no imposition at all on the freedom of those who want to eat pork. That is, they are subject to no government interference at all in their choice to eat pork, and pork is ubiquitous and cheap, available at the overwhelming majority of restaurants and grocers.
The question is this: can a customer come to a kosher deli, demand to be served a ham sandwich, and if refused, bring down severe government sanction on the deli. In a nation committed to religious liberty and diversity, the answer, of course, is no.
At this time the battleground in Canada tends to be education rather than health-care, but the answer in Canada must also be “no!”
Parents are the primary educators of their children and may chose to delegate this authority to the educational systems that are available. These include a variety of forms of education, whether religious, non-religious, public and private, classroom and home, which is already a model for respecting differences.
Some forms of education are based around distinct religious beliefs and respect for a variety of beliefs is an aspect of multiculturalism and pluralism in Section 27 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom. The provision of a variety of religious and non-religious faith-based schools, e.g. secular schools, is a further evidence of diversity in fact. Respect for difference in the form and substance of education must continue to recognized in Canada.
Canada’s Supreme Court has erred in its latest ruling that a mandatory Quebec curriculum in Ethics and Religious Culture, from which a Drummondville Catholic couple wished to exempt their son, does not infringe the couple’s constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion.
Premier McGinty and Ontario Education Minister Laurel Broten in their attempt to force single issue clubs such as gay-straight alliances upon all schools, including Catholic schools, through Bill 13, are also off-side and in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom.
Under Alberta’s new Education Act, home-schoolers and faith-based schools will not be permitted to teach that homosexual acts are sinful as part of their academic program, says Donna McColl, the spokesperson for Education Minister Thomas Lukaszuk.
In a well-known and often cited passage, Chief Justice Dickson, in the first definition of the Supreme Court of Canada dealing with the definition of the freedom of conscience and religion in section 2(a) of the Charter stated: “The essence of the concept of freedom of religion is the right to entertain religious beliefs as the person chooses, the right to declare religious beliefs openly and without fear of hindrance or reprisal, and the right to manifest religious beliefs by worship and practice or by teaching and dissemination.”
The right to teach religious beliefs is recognized as an important aspect of the freedom of religion. Freedom of religion cannot be reduced to freedom to worship.
☩ F. B. Henry
Bishop of Calgary