By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News
Caption: Bishop Fred Henry. Photo courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Calgary.
Calgary Bishop Fred Henry welcomes the Alberta Court of Appeal decision in favor of a former youth pastor who has been fighting a hate speech complaint for ten years.
On Oct., 23 a panel of Alberta Court of Appeal judges upheld the Court of Queen’s Bench 2009 decision that overturned a 2008 Alberta Human Rights Commission finding against Stephen Boissoin that a 2002 letter he wrote to the Red Deer Advocate amounted to hate speech against homosexuals. Not only was Boissoin vindicated a second time, the appeal court awarded him costs.
“This judicial decision was certainly a welcome one and will be an important benchmark to check some of the bullying directed against religious leaders,” said Calgary Bishop Fred Henry, who himself faced complaints to the Alberta Human Rights Commission for a 2005 pastoral letter on marriage during the height of the same-sex marriage debate. The complaints against the bishop were eventually dropped, but not without causing stress and expense to the diocese.
“Just because some pastor’s teaching, preaching and/or writing rubs people the wrong way or causes them to feel hurt doesn’t make it ‘hate speech,’” said Bishop Henry in an email. “Shepherds have to carry both a staff and a rod to care for the well-being of the sheep. We need strong vocal leaders who will occasionally push back.”
The Alberta Human Rights Commission had ordered Boissoin to pay $5,000 in damages to the complainant Darren Lund, a University of Calgary academic, and forbade the pastor from saying anything disparaging about homosexuals even in private emails. While many casual readers might have considered Boissoin’s language intemperate, the Alberta Court of Appeals upheld Boissoin’s right to criticize homosexuality.
“Matters of morality, including the perceived morality of certain types of sexual behavior, are topics for discussion in the public forum,” wrote the Appeal court’s panel of three judges.
“Frequently, expression on these topics arises from deep seated religious conviction, and is not always temperate,” the decision said. “Boissoin and others have the freedom to think, whether stemming from their religious convictions or not, that homosexuality is sinful and morally wrong.”
The court upheld Boissoin’s right to express those religious convictions to others as long as he did not engage in discriminatory practices against homosexual individuals.
The judges also criticized Canada’s hate crimes law.
“Of particular concern in the area of human rights law is that a lack of clarity will cast a chill on the exercise of the fundamental freedoms, such as freedom of expression and religion,” they wrote. “This lack of clarity has resulted in this protracted litigation, to the detriment and expense of all parties.”
The judges suggested the Alberta legislature examine ways to make the legislation more clear so that freedom of expression and religion is more clearly protected while at the same time vulnerable minorities are protected from discrimination.
The Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which defended Boissoin hailed the decision.
“Christians and other people of faith should not be fined or jailed for expressing their political or religious beliefs,” said ADF attorney Gerald Chipeur. “There is no place for thought control in a free and democratic society. The court rightly found that this type of religious speech is not ‘hate speech.’”
Meanwhile, religious freedom advocates await the Supreme Court of Canada decision on the case of Bill Whatcott who has challenged the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission’s hate speech provisions for distributing pamphlets about homosexual behavior. This decision will clarify the highest court’s position on freedom of expression. Canada’s highest court heard arguments in the Whatcott case in Oct. 2011. He was represented by Saskatchewan lawyer Tom Schuck, who is a member of the Catholic Civil Rights League.
A private member’s bill C-304 put forward by Conservative MP Brian Storseth to axe Section 13, the “likely” clause of the Canadian Human Rights Act was passed by the House of Commons last June and is now before the Senate.