Faith groups not political opponents

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At a recent town hall in Winnipeg, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said no religious group is going to be barred from Canada’s summer jobs on the basis of its beliefs and that anyone who says otherwise is pushing a political agenda.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/02/2018 (1653 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

At a recent town hall in Winnipeg, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said no religious group is going to be barred from Canada’s summer jobs on the basis of its beliefs and that anyone who says otherwise is pushing a political agenda.

Respectfully, we disagree. The reality is, organizations that are unable — for reasons of conscience or belief — to check off an attestation stating they support Canadian constitutional rights as well as the right to reproductive choice, a move that seems to restrict access to federal funds to groups that are perceived as anti-abortion or anti-gay.

We implore the prime minister to truly listen to the concerns of Canadians with deeply-held religious convictions.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reacts to a question from the audience at a town hall held at the University of Manitoba. Jan 31, 2018

We are not the prime minister’s political opponents. We are faith-based organizations and churches that use the summer jobs program to offer services to children and other vulnerable people in our communities.

It is surprising, even incredible, that the prime minister cannot understand our concerns when editorial boards across the country have recognized the overreach of the attestation, even though they may not agree with our beliefs. The media, almost without exception, have recognized that the attestation is problematic.

The required attestation is little more than a values test. It is wildly inappropriate, in a free and democratic society, for a government to require citizens or private organizations to attest to anything in order to receive a public benefit.

A troubling precedent is being set. What’s next? All Canadians should be asking that question.

The government continues to argue that it is uninterested in the beliefs of an organization, and concerned only with its activities. But the attestation is clearly not about activities. It is about beliefs.

The government provided some clarification in late January, including a definition of respect that stretches the common usage of the word, almost beyond recognition. To respect, according to this government, now means not seeking to remove or actively undermine existing rights.

This supplementary information leaves our significant concerns unresolved — the attestation remains unchanged. And it raises new questions. We are now left wondering, for example, what exactly it means to “actively undermine.”

We have heard from hundreds of churches and faith-based organizations that are genuinely dismayed with this requirement. These groups provide summer programs that benefit children and youth, newcomers and refugees, persons and families experiencing poverty and homelessness.

They desire to serve their communities. But much of that programming will be significantly reduced, if not cancelled, by the current change in the Canada Summer Jobs grant.

It’s not just us for whom values, beliefs and actions are integrated and inseparable.

The prime minister himself believes fervently that access to abortion is a right and a public benefit. That’s what’s behind this attestation.

However, he is not allowing room for those who believe otherwise. Actions flow out of beliefs and values for all of us.

We do not believe that we have a right to funding, or to a Canada Summer Jobs grant. No one does. However, if the government is going to offer grants, it must offer them on a level playing field and not use ideological screening to determine who is eligible to apply for funding.

The solution seems so easy. The government could have made it clear in the guidelines the kinds of activities that would be eligible for funding, and required applicants simply attest that the grant would be used only for those kinds of activities. They could have asked organizations to confirm that their policies and practices comply with all relevant human rights laws and labour and employment laws.

And they could have removed the value-laden attestation. Removing the requirement to attest respect for certain values and rights would have allowed all of these employers to submit applications without reservation.

The prime minister does not seem to understand that it is not for him or his government to decide what religious Canadians — or any Canadian, for that matter — can or cannot agree to in good conscience.

There is irony in invoking the charter to compel the agreement of individuals and non-governmental organizations. The charter is meant to protect citizens from government intrusion. It is not to be used by government to coerce belief, action or compliance of its citizens.

Julia Beazley is director of public policy for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.

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