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Conservatives backpedal

Public image cleanup was already in full swing less than 24 hours after the Globe and Mail published a report, Oct 4, claiming the Conservative government is drafting new legislation aimed at protecting religious believers who publicly spew hatred against gays and lesbians and refuse to do business with homos.

According to the Globe, the Conservatives’ Defence of Religion Act would allow religious groups to refuse services such as space rentals to gays and lesbians, allow justices of the peace to refuse to marry same-sex couples, and protect people who use religion to denounce homos and homosexuality.

“The nature of the concerns that are being raised with me are relating to freedom of religion and freedom to practice religion [and] freedom of expression,” Justice Minister Vic Toews told the Globe in an apparent confirmation that the bill was being drafted.

The next day he backpedalled. So did Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who told the House of Commons: “In fact, the government has not any plans at all along the lines that he’s suggesting.”

Laurie Arron, executive director of Canadians For Equal Marriage, called the leaked bill “smoke and mirrors legislation.”

Religious groups are already allowed to refuse to rent their spaces to gays and lesbians under existing human rights laws. Last November, the BC Human Rights Tribunal upheld the Knights of Columbus’ religious freedom when it ruled they didn’t have to rent their hall to a lesbian wedding that would run contrary to their core beliefs. (The tribunal did, however, slap the Knights on the wrist for not being more accommodating when they turned the lesbians away.)

As for spewing hatred, religious people are already protected from hate propaganda charges if they say such things as ‘all queers must die,’ provided they base their argument on their religious beliefs.

The Globe suggested the Conservatives would introduce the Defence of Religion Act if they lose this fall’s promised vote to re-examine the legalization of same-sex marriage (which many observers predict they will).

It’s a “sop to the religious right that once again makes us the scapegoats,” says Arron.

The Harper government is developing a track record of “rolling back the clock” on social issues, says Gilles Marchildon, executive director of Egale.

On Sep 25, the government announced funding cuts to a number of areas, including the Court Challenges Program which has helped fund a number of gay constitutional challenges such as the marriage cases. A few days later, Montreal’s Black and Blue Festival was declined access to federal economic development money. Last year’s event received more than $47,000.