Publicly Funded Groups Must Respect Human Rights

The January 25th edition of the Steinbach Carillon published a column by Michael Zwaagstra regarding the attestation that applicants for the Federal Summer Jobs Program are required to sign before receiving public money. (The column is behind a paywall.) Mr Zwaagstra is a teacher, a Steinbach city councillor, an evangelical Christian, and a contributor to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (a conservative think tank based in Winnipeg). Most of the religious concerns he expressed were alleviated by the federal government’s clarification notice, announced just two days before the column was published, and probably not reviewed in time for the paper’s deadline.

Normally I wouldn’t respond to what the religious right has to say about abortion, or about how someone else’s rights offend them, but the column makes some errors, as well as mentioning HAAM, so I thought I’d offer this response.

Thought Police?

Zwaagstra referred to the attestation as an “ideological purity test”, and stated “it’s one thing to withhold funds based on an activity, it’s another entirely to withhold funds based on a belief”. Since the clarification was released, we can all see this issue is about the former criterion. The actual statement that prospective employers must sign reads as follows: “I attest that… Both the job and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as other rights. These include reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression.” (P. 21 Sec 4.5 of the Canada Summer Jobs Applicant Guide)

It seems anti-choice groups and the religious right believe that signing the attestation is a violation of their religious freedoms when it clearly is not. No one is telling them what they have to believe. The statement does ask them to affirm the rights of the LGBTQ community and the reproductive rights of women. Mr. Zwaagstra may feel that this is just a euphemism for “unfettered abortion on demand”, but anyone familiar with abortion services in this country knows the expression “abortion on demand” is just rhetoric for the credulous. Just try to get an abortion on demand. (For anyone wondering just what reproductive rights are, the Women’s Legal, Education, and Action Fund has a good description.)

Acknowledgement ≠ Endorsement

Essentially, what we have here is the religious right treating the constitution like their holy books – picking and choosing the bits they like and reinterpreting or discarding the rest. To use an analogy – as Humanists we support freedom of religion; this is a fundamental right we acknowledge without hesitation. This not to say that we support the genital mutilation of young girls* and boys, or the promotion of ignorance like young earth creationism, climate change denialism, opposition to vaccines, and other anti-scientific views supported wholly or in part by religion and religious believers. Nor do we support scaring children with tales of eternal damnation, or prolonging the suffering of those who seek medically assisted death. Support for the right to freedom of religion is not the same as support for religious actions or ideas. Support for women’s rights is not support for abortion.

As I said, in his column Zwaagstra mentions HAAM, and the link to the petition in support of the summer jobs program requirements currently posted on our website. While I am flattered he thinks it’s our petition, it is not. It was developed by Ian Bushfield and the BC Humanist association (which is clearly stated). Zwaagstra goes on to quote Ian: “While we’d hope to see an end to public funding going to religious organizations entirely, ensuring that public funds aren’t given to groups that work to undermine fundamental human rights is a positive step.” I fully support Ian’s quote. But Zwaagstra continues with the fallacious assertion that this is a “stepping stone to eliminate all public support for faith-based organizations”. It’s not; there is no hidden HAAM agenda.

Who should qualify for public funds?

Religious organizations should not be allowed (or denied) public money just because they are religious organizations. If Zwaagstra had read a little more of our website, he might understand our position a little better. We support a different charity every month, and one of our selection criteria is that “the charity or service must be secular, or if associated with a religious or faith-based organization, its services must be provided without proselytization of clients.” HAAM has supported Agape Table and Welcome Place. Both organizations have ties with faith-based groups but don’t promote religion or discriminate in the delivery of their services. Yes, Mr Zwaagstra, HAAM has given money to faith-based organizations, so why would we oppose public money going to religious groups for charity purposes? However, religious organizations that exist primarily to proselytize, promote bad ideas, or limit others’ human rights should not be eligible for public money. The difference is in the details.

In Winnipeg we have Siloam Mission, which receives public money in part to help the homeless. Although the organization is faith-based and staffed mostly by Christians, they are all about providing services to the less fortunate. They don’t proselytize or make attending religious services a condition. They accept people as they are – any colour, any place in society, and it doesn’t matter the sexual orientation. Public money would be permissible in this situation.

On the other hand, a Christian organization called Samaritans Purse bills itself as a charity giving presents to needy children around the world. All the while their primary goal is to evangelize to these children; the gifts are just bait. Organizations like this should not get public money. Nor should faith-based groups like ‘pregnancy crisis centres‘ that disseminate misinformation.

What if the situation were reversed?

Zwaagstra goes on to wonder how HAAM would react if a future government made everyone sign an attestation to “the supremacy of God and the rule of law” in order to receive public money. Although we find the phrase “supremacy of God” mentioned in the preamble to the constitution, unlike women’s rights the supremacy of God holds no legal weight. It is not a right, so the analogy doesn’t hold… it doesn’t even make sense.

click to enlarge

But it’s an interesting thought experiment. When this future government announces their new ‘supremacy of God’ attestation, and after the laughter dies down, the question would be “whose god?” Ultimately the idea of the supremacy of a god is an absurd idea, and Mr. Zwaagstra would be quite right. It would be a violation of our charter rights. A court challenge would be incredibly exciting, as the government would have to first pick which god is the right one, and then demonstrate its supremacy. The irony is that this would be a violation of Zwaagstra’s freedom of religion if the god they chose turned out not to be his, and a violation of everyone else’s if it was. (The Canadian Secular Alliance has more about the history and absurdity of the ‘supremacy of God’ clause in our constitution and why it should be removed.)

In the end, the government could have been clearer on what was meant in the attestation, but really this kerfuffle has much to do with the theology of certain sects of Christianity. When you combine a loss of privilege with the theological need to be persecuted and a mission to stop abortion at all costs, one can’t help but go looking for something to be offended about.

Pat Morrow is Vice President of HAAM

*Note that although FGM is illegal in Canada, it is still practiced by some religious sects.

Update

30 January 2018

In addition to sharing the petition started by the BC Humanist Association, HAAM was one of 80 pro-choice and human rights groups from across Canada that signed an open letter in support of the government’s move to require groups seeking funding through the Canada Summer Jobs program to respect human rights.

A lawsuit by an anti-choice group requesting an injunction preventing the attestation from taking effect was dismissed in court for lack of grounds.

Upcoming HAAM Events
  1. HAAM and Eggs Brunch

    April 29 @ 9:30 am - 11:00 am
  2. Stealing Reason: Christianity’s Theft of Human Values

    May 12 @ 5:30 pm - 8:30 pm
  3. HAAM and Eggs Brunch

    May 26 @ 9:30 am - 11:00 am
Other Upcoming Events

For community events of interest to HAAM members, click here.

Sign up for our Newsletter