Toronto: In a statement released this afternoon, the Moderator of The United Church of Canada, the Right Rev. Gary Paterson, welcomed today’s Supreme Court ruling that says there are limits to freedom of religion when it comes to hate speech.
“Freedom of religion is not absolute,” says Paterson. “It does not include the right to engage in religiously motivated hate speech, and it does not extend to conduct that harms or interferes with the rights of others.”
Today’s court decision, explains Paterson, confirms the position taken by the United Church when it appeared before the Supreme Court in October 2011 as an intervener in the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission versus William Whatcott appeal.
That appeal originated with a human rights complaint that was filed in Saskatchewan against William Whatcott, an activist who was found guilty and fined for distributing anti-gay flyers that he said expressed his religious beliefs about homosexuals. This ruling was later overturned by the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal.
For over 30 years the United Church has publicly condemned discrimination against gays and lesbians and has advocated for the inclusion of sexual orientation as a prohibited ground of discrimination in human rights legislation.
The church’s long history of commitment to gays and lesbians placed it in a unique position to assist the Supreme Court by bringing different philosophical, religious, social, and moral perspectives from those being offered by other parties.
In its oral presentation to the court the church said, “The United Church strongly supports the robust protection of freedom of religion for all Canadians, including Mr. Whatcott. However, the United Church recognizes the difference between the expression of a religious view—even a controversial and unpopular view—and hate speech. A prohibition on the latter does not prevent anyone from exercising their freedom of religion.”
The church argued “that all Canadians, including Mr. Whatcott, have the right to hold whatever beliefs their conscience dictates, no matter how abhorrent those beliefs may be to others. Likewise, all Canadians, including Mr. Whatcott, have the right to engage in public debate and to reasonably express their religious views, including views that are critical of homosexuals and other identifiable groups—provided that the words and expressions used are not so extreme, hateful, and dehumanizing that they cross the line into hate speech.”
The United Church also argued that hate speech causes real and lasting harm to its victims and to Canadian society. That harm, said the church, is not reduced or mitigated simply because of a claim that the hate speech was motivated by religion. The harm is the same.
“Hate speech encourages derision, hostility, and abuse of already vulnerable persons, causing them pain, indignity, and loss of self-worth,” says Paterson. “It encourages others to share in a hateful and discriminatory point of view, which damages Canadian society and threatens social stability.”
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