A litmus test on abortion and recent comments from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau have been slammed by Catholic and conservative critics, and raise new and troubling questions for pro-life Canadians about the state of religious freedom in their country.
In a speech last week, Trudeau defended a policy requiring grant applicants to state their support of abortion. He said that while individuals are free privately to hold pro-life beliefs, there is a difference between freedom of expression and freedom of action.
“Defending rights and freedoms is at the core of who I am and is the core of what Canada is,” he said. “At the same time, we need to know there is a difference between freedom of expression and acting on those freedoms.”
Furthermore, Trudeau added that pro-life groups which explicitly oppose abortion are “not in line with where we are as a government and, quite frankly, where we are at as a society.”
Trudeau was defending new guidelines of application for a government grant that funds around 70,000 non-profit and for-profit summer jobs, such as camp counseling or landscaping.
Among the new requirements for employers applying for the grants is an “attestation” that the employer is “consistent with individual human rights in Canada, Charter rights and case law, and the Government of Canada’s commitment to human rights, which include women’s rights and women’s reproductive rights, and the rights of gender-diverse and transgender Canadians.”
The requirement has been criticized by Catholics and conservatives in the country as a litmus test for Liberal party ideology that would unfairly and unnecessarily exclude pro-life groups from participating in the grant program, which is not directly related to abortion or reproductive services.
Sara Francis, a Catholic wife and mother from Calgary, told CNA she was “very disappointed with our prime minister and his comments.”
“I think if you were to talk to everyday Canadians on the street, the majority would be uncomfortable with abortion at some point in the nine-month gestation. I don’t think that his comments represent the majority, I think he’s the one that’s out of touch with Canadian values,” she said.
For Francis, the policy could directly impact the Catholic summer camp to which she sends her children, by disqualifying the group from funding for their summer staff.
In a statement released last week, the Canadian bishops blasted the attestation on abortion and transgender issues as an “obvious and regrettable infringement of freedom of conscience and religion” for the groups applying for the grant.
“Faith communities consider abortion, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression as major questions with ethical, moral, social and personal bearing which determine our understanding of human dignity and thus appreciation for the meaning and significance of each and every human life,” the bishops said.
“This new policy conflicts directly with the right to freedom of religion and conscience which too are enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as in associated case law. It seriously undermines the right to religious freedom since the Government of Canada is directly limiting the right of religious traditions to hold, teach and practise their principles and values in public,” they added.
Neil MacCarthy, director of communications for the Diocese of Toronto, said everyone should be included in a pluralistic society and not discriminated against because of their views.
“We certainly believe that core values of our faith, including the sanctity of life, should not preclude us from discussion and engagement in the public square. We must do so respectfully and thoughtfully but certainly, ours is a country with citizens holding a variety of views on a number of different topics,” he told CNA.
“We need to be part of the dialogue. It is difficult to see how caring for the most vulnerable among us at every stage of life would clash with Canadian society and values,” he added.
In an opinion column for the National Post, Father Raymond J. de Souza further noted that the policy is a deliberate act of discrimination by the government, which tried and failed to block pro-life groups from the grant last year only to double down this year.
“Last year the federal Liberals denied the applications of several pro-life groups because, well, the Liberal Party bans pro-life Canadians for running for office under its banner and concluded that if you can’t be a good Liberal then obviously you should be disqualified from public programs,” de Souza wrote.
But because there was nothing in the program guidelines requiring applicants to support abortion, the discriminated groups took the government to court and won, de Souza noted.
Demanding “coerced” assent to certain positions is “the hallmark of a totalitarian government,” de Souza added.
“Demand public displays of ideological loyalty, even from those who everyone knows do not really believe it. That the totalitarian ethos, a cabinet minister who advises pastors to make false statements to qualify for programs their own parishioners pay taxes to fund,” he said.
The Toronto Right to Life Association, a pro-life group which has received funding from the grant in the past, is suing over the new policy.
The Catholic Civil Rights League noted in a statement that as the policy currently stands, no Catholic group could in good conscience apply for the grant, and called for change.
“Any Catholic individual or organization, which professes fidelity to the teachings of the Church, cannot make this affirmation, and is thereby excluded from a program which should be open to all law-abiding organizations,” the statement said.
“We call upon the government to revoke this unconstitutional and deeply offensive provision immediately,” said the League. “Canadians of all faiths must recognize what is at stake.”
The Catholic Register in Canada reported that numerous Christian groups have joined Catholic groups in voicing opposition to the measure. The Catholic bishops have advised groups applying for the grant to do so by paper application, in order to avoid automated exclusion from the program, and to explain their pro-life position in writing.