5 min

When religions deliver the services

As government downloads to charities, clients and patients get force fed religion

The relationship between religion and government flows both ways.

Not only are many religious groups seeking more control and influence over government, governments are increasingly moving towards downloading as many of their social services as possible. And much of that downloading is onto the backs of faith-based organizations.

But with many faiths viewing everyone who doesn’t share their beliefs as a sinner, there are major questions as to whether those organizations will fairly and impartially help everyone who needs it.

And, given that many religious organizations are strongly opposed to homosexuality, the situation leaves many queers in need of help potentially facing a social agency predisposed to discriminate against them, even if the agency is receiving public funds.

Brent Hawkes, the senior pastor of the queer-friendly Metropolitan Community Church Of Toronto, says any such discrimination shouldn’t be allowed.

“One of the premises is that if you receive public funds, you must abide by public policy.”

Hawkes says that premise has generally worked fairly well when it comes to providing services, but he does recognize that cases of discrimination do exist.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, one particularly notable example of that discrimination against queers stems from a hot-button issue ? gay and lesbian couples adopting or fostering children.

The Catholic Children’s Aid Society Of Toronto will not allow gay or lesbian couples to foster or adopt children in their care, despite federal and provincial laws making it clear that such discrimination is not allowed. The CCAS in Toronto received a total of close to $92 million in funding from the federal and provincial governments in 2006, according to Revenue Canada.

In January, the CCAS sent out an e-mail to a queer couple stating, “The Catholic Children’s Aid Society is not currently accepting applications to foster from same-sex couples.”

According to Margaret O’Reilly, the adoption services manager, “We look for Catholic families for children in our care. Our general rule is to place children in Catholic families and the Catholic church does not sanction same-sex couples. We are a faith-based agency and we are guided by our values. If people aren’t able to adopt with us, there are other agencies.”

Asked about the legal aspects of their discrimination, O’Reilly says, “I can’t speak to the human rights aspect.”

But according to Anne Machowski, of the provincial Ministry Of Children And Youth Services, the CCAS is not allowed to discriminate in such a fashion.

“Children’s aid societies, private adoption licensees and licensed domestic and international adoption agencies are expected to provide adoption services in accordance with both the Canadian Charter Of Rights And Freedoms and the Ontario Human Rights Code. Children’s aid societies are expected to offer foster care services in accordance with the Canadian Charter Of Rights And Freedoms and the Ontario Human Rights Code.

“All Ontario residents may adopt or foster a child without being subject to discrimination on the basis of such factors as race, religion, age, ethnic origin, mental/physical disability, gender, sexual orientation, or marital status.

“Under the Child And Family Services Act, an application to adopt a child can be made by one individual or jointly by two individuals who are spouses of one another. Same-sex spouses may apply jointly to adopt a child. The primary goal in adoption is to select the most suitable family for the child in need of a permanent home.

“With respect to adoptive and foster care placements, the best interests of the child are always paramount.”

In Ottawa, the homeless shelter The Ottawa Mission is accused of only providing lunch to those homeless people who attend their 11am chapel service. The Ottawa Mission received $3,079,505 from the municipality in 2005, according to Revenue Canada.

And according to Bill Ryan, a professor in McGill University’s School Of Social Work and the co-author of a study on care for queer seniors in Canada, those seniors often face prejudice from the homes they often end up in.

“Those faith-based groups that have the most institutions tend to be the rightwing ones. There’s a real danger in that to those who are concerned about homophobia. In Quebec, for example, most nursing homes are Saint this and Saint that, and there’s crucifixes all over the place. Nurses, caregivers would come in and tell them it was blasphemy.

“All the gay and lesbian seniors we talked to went into institutions as singles, and their ‘friends’ were allowed to visit. They knew they had to slide under the radar all the time. When people were in institutions, they would never allow themselves to show affection other than would be allowed in friendship. People would dry clean themselves and remove any sign of who they were.”

James Vanderwoerd, a professor of social work at Redeemer University College ? a private Christian school in Ontario that receives no government money ? has written extensively about the downloading of social services to faith-based organizations in Canada and the US. He says such discrimination in services should not be allowed.

“No person should be forced to receive services that are against their beliefs. Organizations cannot discriminate in any way against a client’s beliefs.”

Vanderwoerd also worries that the downloading of services will mean that some services simply vanish.

“One the one hand, this is about government stepping back from responsibility, driven by funding concerns. Private interests are only going to address themselves to issues they see fit. Government is the only sector that has responsibility for everybody. If you have a situation where you only have care for those the private sector is interested in, it introduces more possibilities for falling between the cracks.”

Both Vanderwoerd and Hawkes agree that faith-based charities are a rich source of social aid.

“There’s a huge potential of goodwill, volunteers and facilities,” says Hawkes.

And both also agree that the biggest issue when it comes to discrimination for faith-based organizations is not the services, but whom the organizations hire. But the two disagree on the implications of that discrimination.

Hawkes says charities that receive public money should not be able to discriminate in whom they hire. He points out that people change, and someone who was straight when they were hired may come out later.

“There’ve been GLBT staff or even heterosexual staff who didn’t want to sign a morality clause. What happens if they decide they no longer want to abide by a faith clause?”

But Vanderwoerd, while ambivalent about the idea, says that faith-based charities probably should be allowed to discriminate in their hiring.

“I work at a Christian college and there’s no way they would hire someone who’s in a gay or lesbian relationship. I’m not sure what I think about it.

“But the problem for charities is, who do they hire? In the whole area of women’s shelters, in certain kinds of positions, they only hire women and that makes sense. I wouldn’t want to close that door on religious groups doing more of that. Within what we consider to be legal, organizations should be able to live up to their beliefs. If there’s a fundamental belief, they should be able to make that matter in some way.”

Vanderwoerd says he thinks the solution is to establish a wider spectrum of organizations that cater to all communities.

“What you’d want in an ideal world is you’d encourage participation by a whole myriad of religiously and culturally specific groups, so everyone can find help and employment opportunities within a setting that respects their beliefs.”

But both Vanderwoerd and Hawkes say the question of whether discrimination should lead to a withdrawal of funding may be academic, that so many people need help and governments are so desperate to cut costs that closing agencies may not be practical.

“To some extent, we are driven to that position by need,” says Vanderwoerd. “But that’s a government-driven need. That’s what worries me.”

Hawkes agrees that government is probably reluctant to resume responsibility for many of those programs, making faith-based organizations indispensable even if they do discriminate.

“There may be cases where we can’t close a facility if there’s no one ready to fill the gap. It’s hard to say only government should pay for this and we shouldn’t use private services.”

But, Hawkes adds, he’s also sick of governments removing money from social services in exchange for votes.

“We have this mantra of cutting taxes. Right now, I don’t want to be cutting taxes and removing money from this pool.”

And with a provincial, and probably a federal, election coming up this year, there’s an opportunity for queers ? and the many other communities who need the same social services – to convince those who would govern that cutting those services will cost them votes. After all, if there’s one thing a politician will choose over cutting taxes, it’s power.