3 min

The right to be wrong

Religious people have right to speak out

For years we’ve told judges, politicians and religious leaders that all we want is recognition of our place in the fabric of this nation. We’re not out to deprive others of their right to think what they want about gays and lesbians, we’ve assured everyone, we just want our own sexual freedom and equality of opportunity under the law.

People could hold on to their own religious beliefs about whether gays and lesbians were sinners and going to hell, we continued, and rightly so. People must have a right to express publicly these beliefs. But if they act on those beliefs by hitting us, or advocating Nazi-like solutions of hate, well, then the law ought to respond.

Weaving between the Constitutional right to equality and the Constitutional rights to religion and freedom of expression, this understanding finds a middle ground that recognizes the equality rights of gays without denying others their rights to think and to speak out.

Given that, historically, our community is the first to have our thoughts, our newspapers, our writings censored – witness the unacceptable restrictions in the federal Liberal’s proposed Bill C-20 – we have a tradition of understanding that freedom of thought, speech and expression is the fountainhead of our other progress. Our best leaders have been prepared to go to the ropes to protect those freedoms, for ourselves and for everyone else (because freedom of speech is about your enemy’s right to speak freely, not just about your own right).

So, it’s with great sadness that I note some recent breakdowns in this noble tradition of our community. Surrey lesbians Carol Pegura and Lori Kim Forster have filed a complaint with the BC Human Rights Tribunal because they believe the Surrey school board should have restricted the remarks made by delegations last June as they commented on a proposal to allow three gay-positive books to be used in the curriculum. It’s true that some horrible things were said, mainly by religious extremists, about gays and lesbians.

But let’s face it: this was an important political topic in Surrey. The job of those school trustees is to allow a public discussion, no matter how vigorous, no matter how wrongheaded because, well, because voters have a right to think what they think and express what they believe before elected officials. Period.

One then expects the public officials to rise above narrow religious concerns, as the Constitution demands, by balancing religious freedom of thought with gay equality rights within a secular school system.

Sorry, Carol Pegura and Lori Kim Forster: your cause is not just.

Which brings me to the fallout from Svend Robinson’s Bill C-250. Widely misunderstood and poorly reported in local media, Bill C-250 aims to treat an anti-gay hate propagandist on par with an anti-black or anti-Jewish hate propagandist. Someone who advocates for mass roundups, concentration camps, genocide, murder. That sort of thing.

It does not apply, should not apply, and was repeatedly explained not to apply, to the beliefs of religious fundamentalists who would deny us our equality and freedom. Christian, Muslim and Sikh groups have been fighting Bill C-250 because they don’t trust future courts to respect their freedom of religious thought and preaching.

The day after the House of Commons passed Bill C-250 (Senate approval is likely this autumn), we got calls at Xtra West from local gays who wanted to use it to shut down objectionable columnists in the Province newspaper, the papers of local minorities and even to shut up obnoxious YMCA patrons.

It’s true that some idiotic things get written and said, including some highly objectionable things, things that our community takes great offence to-lies, half-truths and deliberate misunderstandings. But so what? With or without Bill C-250, that’s democracy, that’s freedom of thought, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of expression.

Our community’s progress is not about shutting up those who don’t acknowledge the reality of our lives, our lusts, our loves. Our opponents are wrong, of course, but they have the right to be wrong and to be wrong in a very public way.

We’ve won over some 80 percent of Canadians to our struggle for liberation and equality. The other 20 percent may or may not be won over on the strength of how just our cause is. But we must win on the facts, by revealing our truths, our personal stories. Not by trying to silence those who disagree with our cause.

Gareth Kirkby is Managing Editor for Xtra.