3 min

Court tells religious groups to scram

Challenge to prostitution laws moves forward

RELIGIOUS MORALITY GROUPS NOT WELCOME. "This [case] isn't about religion," says sex work activist Valerie Scott. "It's about safety. We want to be able to work properly." Credit: Paula Wilson photo

Two religious groups and a conservative women’s group wishing to intervene in a constitutional challenge to Canada’s prostitution laws have been told to beat it by an Ontario judge.

The Christian Legal Fellowship, REAL Women of Canada and the Catholic Civil Rights League applied to intervene in the challenge, which was launched by the Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC), an advocacy group that works toward the decriminalization of sex work.
Justice Ted Matlow of the Ontario Superior Court said the participation of the conservative groups would turn the challenge into a platform for religious views and would disrupt and prolong the proceedings.

The challenge “does not provide a political platform where interested persons are permitted to speak in order to advance their personal views, beliefs, policies and interests at large,” said Matlow on Jul 2.

Matlow also sent a clear message that religious morality groups don’t have a “special relationship” with the courts that allows them to make arguments that “would reflect the views of only small segments of Canadian society.”

Alan Young, SPOC’s lawyer, is pleased with Matlow’s decision.

“It’s insulting and demeaning for a group to find a reason to argue about the moral value of a prostitute,” says Young.

Young says Canada’s prostitution laws are “irrational” and increase the level of harm to which sex workers are exposed. Whether or not one thinks a certain occupation is immoral is irrelevant, says Young. “People still are protected by the secular state.”

The challenge is being made by activists Terri Jean Bedford, Valerie Scott and Amy Lebovitch. They argue that Canada’s prostitution laws are to blame for a high number of robberies, beatings, rapes and murders of sex workers.

“The law does the opposite to protect us,” says Scott.

Under the Criminal Code of Canada anyone can be arrested for living on the avails of prostitution.

“That makes it illegal for me to send my mother or father a birthday present,” says Scott.

The same law also makes it illegal for sex workers to rent apartments, have roommates or refer clients.

Canada’s bawdyhouse law is another weird one. It makes it illegal to flip tricks indoors, which is one reason why many prostitutes take their trade to the streets, says Scott. It’s also illegal to communicate for the purposes of prostitution. That part of the law, says Scott, acts as a disincentive for sex workers who are victimized to call the police.

The efforts of the Toronto Police Service’s Sex Crimes Unit, which investigates sexual offences against sex workers, is not enough to protect sex workers, says Scott.

“The way the laws are set up makes it extremely hard to work in safe conditions,” she says.

Scott is pleased the conservative groups have been cut from SPOC’s challenge.

“These people are not directly affected, no matter how many moral issues they bring up,” says Scott. “This [case] isn’t about religion. It’s about safety. We want to be able to work properly.”

Joanne McGarry is the executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, one of the three groups that applied to intervene with SPOC’s case. She is disappointed with Matlow’s decision.

“There seems to be a mentality that people with moral issues shouldn’t be speaking to the issue,” she says. “It’s an infringement on free speech.”

McGarry believes SPOC’s case should address morality and that the prostitution laws should stay as they are.

“While no law will ever be perfect, what we have now provides a legal avenue for providing help to prostitutes, especially those not in the business of their free will,” says McGarry.

McGarry says the Catholic Civil Rights League is in favour of all people and personal freedom but later added that the group does not support sex work. During Canada’s same-sex marriage debate, the league actively argued that gay marriage infringes upon freedom of religion.

This is the first time the league has weighed in on Canada’s prostitution laws, says McGarry. She says the league’s lawyers are considering an appeal to Matlow’s ruling.

Meanwhile SPOC will spend the summer prepping for its case.

Scott expects a decision by March 2010.