Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Freedom of religion under attack

Catholic Insight
By RoryLeishman

In a public lecture at London, England, on March 28, the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, observed that “the freedom of religion is much more than the freedom to worship; it is the freedom to act according to that belief in the service of others.”
In Britain, as in Canada, freedom of religion has recently come under systematic attack by the state. In Britain, the latest excess occurred on March 22, when Parliament enacted sweeping regulations under the Equality Act that forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. There is no provision in the law to exempt religious institutions.
Both Prime Minister Tony Blair and Conservative Opposition Leader David Cameron backed the new regulations despite a warning from Murphy-O’Connor that they could force Catholic adoption agencies to shut down, because Catholic social workers cannot in good conscience arrange for the adoption of vulnerable children by same-sex couples. The new regulations could also force private Catholic schools in Britain to subject their pupils to gay rights propaganda.
Throughout the 20th century, Britain maintained an exemplary record of respect for the free exercise of religion. As Murphy-O’Connor noted in his lecture, both the Abortion Act 1967 and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 include “conscientious objection” provisions that exempt physicians who uphold the sanctity of human life from any legal obligation to perform abortions or death-dealing fertility treatments. For faithful Christians, the lack of any comparable “conscientious objection” clause in the Equality Act is downright ominous.
In Canada, freedom of religion has also come under attack, but here, the main threat comes not so much from equality-obsessed legislators as out-of control judges in the courts. Thus, despite the lack of any authority in law or precedent, the Supreme Court of Canada held in Trinity Western, 2001, that the “freedom to hold beliefs is broader than the freedom to act on them.” Just a few months later, Mr. Justice Robert McKinnon of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice cited this judicial decree in Trinity Western as justification for holding in the Hall case that the staff at an Ontario Catholic secondary school can inform students about the Church's teachings on the sinfulness of sodomy, but cannot act upon this religious belief, by barring a student from bringing a homosexual date to a school dance.
With rulings like these, the courts and human rights tribunals in Canada have trampled upon the historic rights of Canadians to the free exercise of religion. And now the Parliament of Britain is doing the same. Currently in both countries, it’s an offence for a social worker in an adoption agency to decline to help a homosexual couple adopt a child or for a musician who offers services to the public to refuse to play at a same-sex wedding.
Sooner or later, some resolute Christians in Britain and Canada are going to end up as prisoners of conscience for refusing to divorce their actions from their beliefs. These faithful Christians will be incarcerated for heeding the admonition in the Epistle of James that followers of Christ should “be doers of the word, and not hearers only.”
The suppression of freedom of religion does not just threaten individual Christians. It also undermines the moral foundations of democracy. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor recalled in his lecture how several European countries in the last century also came under the control of arrogant politicians and judges who constricted religion to the purely private sphere and declared themselves to be a law unto themselves, subject to no higher moral authority.
Murphy-O’Connor argued that it is no coincidence that some of these European countries easily slipped from a liberal to a totalitarian state. He noted: “In stark contrast, Britain resisted this trend by its continued inclusion of religion in the public sphere, and we remained democratic.”
It would be reckless for Canadians to assume that our country could never lapse into totalitarian oppression. We should heed Murphy-O’Connor’s warning: “When an essential core of our democratic freedom risks being undermined, subsequent generations will hold to account those who were able to raise their voices yet stayed silent. Christian witness does not permit us to be silent on the fundamental importance of the free exercise of religious belief.”

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