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Harper denies religious protection plans

Sharp right, then a sudden stop, then throw it in reverse

Stephen Harper is in damage control mode after an apparent leak in the federal Justice Department suggested the Conservatives are looking to enshrine the rights of homophobes in law.

Public image cleanup was already in full swing less than 24 hours after The Globe And Mail published a report Oct 4 suggesting that the Conservatives planned four-part legislation aiming to protect religious groups and believers from prosecution for human rights violations against gay men and lesbians.

The Globe reported Harper is planning laws that would: allow businesses to refuse services to gay and lesbian organizations; allow churches to refuse to rent halls for gay and lesbian weddings; allow justices of the peace to refuse to marry same sex couples; and protect people who speak out against gays and lesbians.

Canada’s gay activists are decidedly unimpressed.

“They’re looking for ways to legalize discrimination,” says Gilles Marchildon, executive director of Egale Canada.

Undermining equal marriage rights “is a sop to the religious right that once again makes us the scapegoats,” says Laurie Arron, executive director of Canadians For Equal Marriage.

Conservative MPs Art Hanger (a socially conservative MP) and Garth Turner have spoken out against the proposed measures.

A political storm erupted after The Globe reported the so-called Defence Of Religions Act, which would be introduced if reopening same-sex marriage fails. It is widely believed that a vote to reopen same-sex marriage would be handily defeated by all three opposition parties, with the support of a fraction of the Conservative party. Harper signalled last spring that a vote on whether to reopen the same-sex marriage debate would take place early fall; by last week, word was out that the Conservatives were looking at holding it just before Christmas under pressure from Christian Right groups who want the extra time to lobby MPs.

“They know they’re going to lose the marriage vote and want to delay it,” Arron says. He suggested that this controversy could be part of the delay tactics.

The delay increases the possibility that these issues will frame the next election as Harper tries to grasp a majority government. Since the Conservatives have failed to make a sustained coalition with any other party, their spring budget could get voted down. If the budget is defeated, an election is imminent early next year. The Conservatives could use a vigorous defence of religious freedom as a wedge issue to bring out their most conservative supporters.

The Defence Of Religions Act speaks to two provincial human rights complaints which have had the religious right “screaming,” notes Tom Warner, author of Never Going Back: A History Of Queer Activism In Canada. In 2002, Scott Brockie and his printing press were reprimanded for refusing to print office supplies for the Canadian Lesbian And Gay Archives in Toronto. Elsewhere, an ad in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix featuring antigay scripture resulted in small fines for both the newspaper and its advertiser.

But, says Warner, any proposed legislation along those lines could get gummed up over matters of jurisdiction. It would be hard for the government to pass laws in these matters that does not step on provincial legislative jurisdiction.

“If they want to campaign as a narrow-minded group that is beholden to the religious right, they will pay the price, in that mainstream Canada will not support them,” adds Marchildon.

He notes that the Harper Conservatives are developing a track record of “rolling back the clock,” on social issues. The Conservatives announced plans to axe the court Challenges Program on Sep 25. On Sep 20, the Prime Minister appointed David Brown to the Ontario Superior Court in the Toronto area. Brown represented antigay and antiabortion views in a handful of court cases and written legal documents on the “sanctity of life.” Last week, the Black And Blue Festival in Montreal was declined access to federal economic development money. Last year’s event received more than $47,000.

Together with his ongoing commitment to revisit the same-sex marriage debate, a bleak picture begins to emerge, says Marchildon.

“You can connect the dots.”

Caroline Rousse, director of external affairs for the Black And Blue Festival, is also mindful that Harper failed to attend the 16th Annual AIDS Conference in Toronto.

“It keep on adding up,” Rousse says.

“I don’t want to live in a country that’s back in the 1940s and ’50s,? she says, adding that, “especially in Quebec” Harper’s agenda isn’t accepted.