TORONTO, ON April 30, 2009 – The Catholic Civil Rights League today expressed disappointment that changes to the Alberta Human Rights Code have not addressed the problem of the commission hearing free speech cases. The League has long argued that such provisions should be removed from the Code. This section of the Code has been relied upon in the past to attack Bishop Fred Henry for statements made in a 2005 pastoral letter about the re-definition of marriage, and to prosecute Pastor Stephen Boissoin for a letter to the Red Deer Advocate.
The Alberta government introduced amendments Tuesday to the province’s human rights code that will enshrine sexual orientation as a ground of prohibited discrimination, with a companion provision to allow parents to remove their children from teachings that conflict with their religious or moral beliefs.
But the government declined to make changes that would strip the Alberta Human Rights Commission of its power to adjudicate cases of free speech, an area which has proven to be highly contentious.
The Stelmach government has said in the past that free speech issues are better handled by the hate laws in the Criminal Code rather than the commission.
However, with Bill 44, the Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Amendment Act, the province appears to have decided the federal laws provide insufficient protection and that the commission should continue ruling on free speech cases. “People have lost faith in the commission,” Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett said Tuesday, according to a report in The Calgary Herald. “We want to make sure that it’s a transparent, equitable system.”
Says Phil Horgan, CCRL President, “This reform was an opportunity to protect free speech, particularly speech based on religious belief, and it is unfortunate that this has not occurred. This portion of the provincial code, like its cousin, Section 13 in the federal Human Rights Code, can be and has been used to stifle the expression of religious belief just because not everyone agrees with it, or with how it was expressed. Human rights commissions were designed to prevent discrimination in everyday living, such as employment and the provision of services. They should not be adjudicating free speech cases.”
The problems with human rights commissions addressing free speech cases include the absence of due process, the ability to bring complaints free of charge while respondents must defend themselves at their own expense, and the absence of a presumption of innocence or normal rules of evidence.
In addition to the complaint against Bishop Henry, which was eventually withdrawn after considerable expense for the diocese, previous charges include 1) the complaint against Stephen Boissoin, a Protestant youth pastor fined a total of $7,000 in 2008 and ordered never to speak or write publicly in future about homosexual conduct. The case is currently under appeal, and 2) a complaint filed against Ezra Levant, former publisher of the Western Standard, for publishing the controversial cartoons satirizing the Prophet Mohammed in 2006.
Review of Section 13 greatly needed, says League. CCRL backgrounder, February, 2009
Catholic Civil Rights League (www.ccrl.ca) assists in creating conditions within which Catholic teachings can be better understood, cooperates with other organizations in defending civil rights in Canada, and opposes defamation and discrimination against Catholics on the basis of their beliefs. CCRL was founded in 1985 as an independent lay organization and has chapters across Canada. The Catholic Civil Rights League is a Canadian non-profit organization entirely supported by the generosity of its members.
For further information: Joanne McGarry, Executive Director, 416-466-8244; firstname.lastname@example.org