By Deborah Gyapong
Canadian Catholic News

CALGARY Bishop Fred Henry is calling for an overhaul of legislation governing human rights commissions.

“Human rights laws, designed as a shield, are now being used as a sword,” Henry wrote in a December 31 email from Calgary, in what he described as an increasingly “bizarre” series of events.

The recent filing of human rights complaints against Maclean’s magazine for an excerpt of Mark Steyn’s bestselling book America Alone, and against Catholic Insight magazine for articles outlining Catholic teaching on homosexuality, are only the latest in a series of cases that have highlighted freedom of speech and religious freedom.

The Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) described the Steyn and Catholic Insight cases as part of an “ongoing pattern in the use of human rights commissions to penalize the expression of unpopular opinions,” in a December 31 alert to members entitled, ‘Stop the use of human rights commissions in free speech cases.’

“The League is concerned about this disturbing trend, since it often involves opinions based on religious beliefs,” said CCRL executive director Joanne McGarry.

Henry agrees, stating: “The issue is rarely true discrimination but rather censorship and enshrinement of a particular ideology through threats, sanctions and punitive measures.”

In 2005, Henry faced two separate complaints to the Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC) for allegedly discriminatory comments in a pastoral letter on marriage. “I challenged one by one the standard arguments used to support same sex unions as the equivalent of traditional marriage,” Henry stated.

Though the complaints were eventually dropped, Henry described the process as “fundamentally flawed,” and closely resembling “kangaroo courts.” Among those flaws, he maintained, were the “presumption of guilt until you can prove your innocence; the open ended time lines for dealing with a complaint; and unjust incurring of financial expenditures for the defendant in the simple event of a complaint being lodged.”

The AHRC covers the complainants’ costs.

Human rights commissions (HRCs) were set up to protect people against discrimination when it came to housing, employment or services. Henry contended that existing human rights legislation needed to be interpreted very broadly to allow the complaints against him.

“It was surprising that the Commission accepted the complaints on the basis of ‘goods/services refused and terms of goods/services,’ as there was no explanation as to what constituted goods or services refused, or their terms,” Henry said. “Nor did the complainants set out the manner of discrimination in other areas.”

He added: “I believe these complaints were an attempt to intimidate and silence me.”

He also called the lodging of these complaints a violation of his rights of freedom of religion and freedom of expression guaranteed by the Charter.

Henry called for a clear separation of the many roles now played by human rights commissions. These roles include promoting human rights, investigating complaints, conciliating complaints, acting in the public interest and advocating for an expanded interpretation of the Canadian Human Rights Act.

Henry also called for greater transparency in appointments to HRCs and for the setting of specific standards to “safeguard the reliability, impartiality and transparency of the investigation, conciliation and decision-making processes.”

The CCRL does not want to see HRCs involved in freedom of speech issues at all.

“The League has refrained from making hate speech complaints to any courts or commissions, even though some of the anti-Catholic content we address, and the remarks directed at us in the course of our work, could certainly be described as demeaning if not downright hateful,” McGarry said in the alert. “In our view, the importance of free speech supersedes whether we agree with what others are saying.”

“As a civil rights organization, we recognize that freedom expression and freedom of religious expression are two of the most important values for Canadians,” she said in an interview from Toronto. “We think the use of human rights tribunals to penalize the peaceable expression of religious viewpoints is a misuse of their original purpose.”

Freedom of expression, she said, “is an important enough value that any curtailment of it must be held to the much higher standard required by a court.” That standard, she said, includes the presumption of innocence, both parties facing equal costs, and the possibility that frivolous complaints could result in the complainant picking up the defendants court costs.

McGarry said the best way to address these issues is through dialogue, especially through the media. She said it is in the give and take of debate that most people learn about acceptable speech. “Politeness is not something that needs to be judicially imposed,” she said.

McGarry’s alert lists 11 examples, including Christian Heritage Party Leader Ron Gray, brought before the Canadian HRC and the Ontario HRC for a website article critical of homosexual conduct. The list can be read at their website.

— © Canadian Catholic News. Reprinted with permission.