Not long ago I had a conversation on the church steps with a man from my church congregation; he was upset the Lord’s Prayer was no longer allowed in schools.
He couldn’t understand why people of different faiths could not be more tolerant of the Christian principles that founded our country. He talked about the right to freedom of religion, but he had it only half right. After inquiring further, I realized he meant freedom of Christianity. The principle of freedom of religion is only worthwhile in our society if it applies to all religion.
I grew up attending the Prairie Rose Evangelical Mennonite Church in Landmark, Man. The town is 40 kilometres from Winnipeg, and is a bedroom community today. People in my community believed then, and now, that Scripture found in the Old and New Testaments is the word of God, and the final authority in all matters of conduct. But even in Landmark, times are changing. There are a variety of people and faiths in Landmark that I never saw as a boy.
Freedom of religion is a fundamental right in our democratic state and one that most Canadians value. We have worked hard to ensure that an individual’s right to practice any faith of his or her choosing is accepted and protected in the eyes of the law. However, freedom of religion is no longer being applied fairly throughout Canadian society, not even by major mainstream religions. It appears we are now at a place where it is acceptable, even popular to criticize Christians and mock their beliefs and values, while other prominent religions are celebrated for their contribution to a diverse society.
A university professor wrote me a letter recently, describing my “baggage”: a “highly assimilated, unilingual, unhyphenated, Canadian born and bred, white, Anglo-Saxon, Christian male,” she wrote, in big block letters. The author identified me as a Christian, and therefore member of a group deemed an appropriate target of scorn. I cannot help but think if I were a member of any other non-Christian religion, and any one of these terms were swapped out, the author would be cast as bigoted and intolerant.
Trinity Western University, a private Christian school, has sought certification of its law faculty, just like any other law school in Canada. The curriculum is the same; the graduates are qualified for the bar. However, Trinity Western asks that students adhere to a Code of Conduct forbidding sexual intimacy outside of marriage between a man and woman. Some law societies have voted to reject Trinity graduates simply because of that code, deeming it discriminatory against gay applicants.
The school does not prohibit gay students, or even non-Christians, from enrolling. And, ironically, the rule in question would affect more heterosexual students than homosexual students, making the link to LGBT rights unfounded. A Muslim student of Trinity Western told me last week that students of all faiths and divergent beliefs are encouraged to participate in class discussions and debates. He told me he never felt anything but acceptance and tolerance, and it was his submission that the law societies’ disapproval of the law school was pure anti-Christian bigotry.
In 2014 the City of Nanaimo, B.C. banned a secular event called Leadercast at its taxpayer-owned convention centre because the CEO one of the sponsors, Chick-Fil-A, publicly supported the traditional definition of marriage. The motion at city council complained the conference was tainted by “expressions of hate”. One councillor referred to the CEO has having “very strong, unbelievable Christian beliefs,” while another called the viewpoint “almost criminal in this day and age”. If that’s not intolerance, what is?
Freedom of religion is not being applied equally in our country. Self-described Christians represent 69% of Canadians; our Constitution is based on Christian principles; our national holidays follow the Christian calendar; yet when it comes to freedom of religion and freedom of speech, we are leaving Christianity out. We are falling into the trap of political correctness; the trap of what should be said and what cannot be said. However, if we want to be defenders of freedom of religion, we need to stand up for freedom of all religion.
That is what I told the man on the church steps in my hometown. Instead of asking Canadians to accept only the Lord’s Prayer at school, Christians should accept the right of others to bring their traditions and observances into our public spaces – including the Lord’s Prayer. That would represent a truly tolerant Canada.
(Editor’s note: the author is former Conservative Party president and Senator for Manitoba. Senator Plett’s commentary was originally published March 1, 2015)