4 min

Keep belief in its place

Personal morality must not be turned into public policy

The Catholic church in the US is up in arms about the possible passage of the Freedom of Choice Act, warning that its passage would mean the end of civilization as we know it.

The act would ensure that government is unable to limit abortions performed before viability.

The only problem with the church’s apocalyptic campaign: there is no such bill. Such a bill has been introduced in the past, but never made it out of committee. There is now no such bill before Congress, yet according to Time magazine, in November, the annual general meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops voted unanimously “‘to mobilize the resources of the USCCB, dioceses and the entire Catholic community’ to oppose the Freedom of Choice Act. A chain email of unknown origin soon began making its way into Catholic inboxes, warning of an imminent threat to the anti-abortion cause. ‘For those of you who do not know,’ it read, ‘the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA) is set to be signed if Congress passes it on January 21-22 of 2009. The FOCA is the next sick chapter in the book of abortion.'”

Is it surprising that the church would make up a bill in order to mobilize anti-abortion support? It shouldn’t be. This is the way churches and religions have traditionally operated, creating straw men to build up panic then tearing them down.

Remember the campaign churches, mosques and synagogues waged against including sexual orientation in Canadian hate crimes law? That would be when the religious right warned that such inclusion would mean constant prosecution of churches for preaching the Bible during masses and the end of religion as we know it. The campaign whipped up all sorts of homophobic hatred. The result, of course, has been a complete lack of hate crimes prosecutions of churches. Preachers, rabbis and imams are as free as ever to rant against homosexuality.

That’s the freedom they used to full advantage during the campaign against same-sex marriage, as did Stephen Harper. Remember that campaign? That would be when they warned that allowing same-sex marriage would mean the end of traditional marriages, would mean churches would be forced to marry gays and, of course, would mean prison for any priest who refused to perform such marriages.

What happened? No church has been forced to perform a same-sex marriage, no priests have been arrested and, surprise, the world hasn’t ended.

Religions love to stir up panic in the public — even if they have to create it all themselves — and then use the frenzy to drum up hatred against their enemies. And when those churches see their power slowly eroding, as is the case these days, those imaginary campaigns get ever more vicious.


Now, having said that, it will no doubt come as something of a surprise to the religious right — members of whom, to my shocked pleasure, apparently read this column and website — that I have some sympathy for them. Not on questions of inclusion in hate crimes legislation or same-sex marriage, but on questions of free speech and the misuse of human rights codes and provincial and federal human rights commissions.

Catholic Insight, a virulently homophobic publication based in Toronto, has been the subject of several human rights complaints based on their writings about gays and lesbians. Their response has included the claim that there’s a double standard at play.

In their February issue, editor Alphose de Valk writes, “The government should also keep in mind that persons of our faith persuasion are regularly subjected to vilification and criticism from the very segment of the population that launched human rights and other actions against us. The leading Canadian homosexual magazine Xtra!, for example, has regularly published a column called ‘Godless World,’ which, as the name implies, focuses on expunging any vestiges of religious faith from the public sphere. Never has this publication, nor the composer of the column in question, been subject to a human rights commission investigation.”

Now I must quibble with the logic here. I don’t think the fact that I’ve never faced a human rights complaint for this column is grounds for invalidating the whole system of human rights commissions. But the fact is I do think such commissions have been forced to deal with complaints they shouldn’t be dealing with and have been used to restrict free speech.

The prime example concerns the complaints filed, and eventually dropped, against Mark Steyn for his writing about Islam. Steyn’s piece was inaccurate, poorly written and almost juvenile in its anti-Muslim ranting. But rather than let Steyn slip into a well-deserved obscurity, the complaints earned him notoriety and a place as a poster boy for free speech that he doesn’t merit.

That’s not what I want to see. I want to see people like Steyn and de Valk free to publish because I think public exposure is the best way to ensure their garbage is subjected to the ridicule it deserves.

And if I’m willing to put up with them, then they’re going to have put up with little ol’ me as well. And my ongoing attempts at “expunging any vestiges of religious faith from the public sphere.”

As a private organization, the Catholic church and Catholic Insight are free to say and believe whatever they want, as far as I’m concerned.

De Valk is right. I do want to eliminate religion from the public sphere. I believe in the separation of church and state. But I’m not calling for its elimination from private places of worship or from people’s homes or personal beliefs.

This places me in contrast to the Catholic church, which not only wants to eliminate homosexuality from the public sphere but wants it eliminated from bedrooms, from films and books and from hearts and minds.

Fortunately, as is becoming ever clearer, history will not be on the side of the church.