Previously published by The Lawyer’s Daily, a division of LexisNexis Canada
In 2018, the federal government demanded that every Canada Summer Jobs (CSJ) applicant “check the box” accepting the government’s ideology on abortion, marriage and end-of-life issues under the controversial rubric of “Charter values.” That requirement provoked such indignation from a wide spectrum of groups and media outlets, religious and secular alike, that the government dropped the attestation in 2019.
But the aim of demanding conformity continues unchanged. The government has simply moved away from its visible “check the box” requirement on the application form to behind-the-curtain investigations designed to exclude any organizations that may not adhere to the current government’s preferred ideology.
Most of these are Christian organizations, including many summer camps. These camps welcome urban, minority or at-risk youth; children with disabilities; and young people from impoverished backgrounds for a week or more of praise and worship singing along with crafts, canoeing, horseback riding, archery, mountain biking and other programs. Given their association with religious communities, these camps have become a target for unequalled scrutiny and inevitable rejection because they dare adhere to a different set of beliefs than the government. The government views these camps in much the same way that Wolsey thought of Sir Thomas More in Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons: “You’re a constant regret to me, Thomas. If you could just see facts flat on, without that horrible moral squint.”
If only those camps did not have that “horrible moral squint.”
Living in a free and democratic society used to mean — and should still mean — that religious communities could carry on “squinting” without bureaucrats assessing whether their religious beliefs align with or are “concerning” to the beliefs held by the government of the day. But this is 2021; we have advanced greatly in our moral acuity since 2015. We now have bureaucrats searching for and sifting out CSJ applicants with religious connections whose moral squint the government deems needs correcting. Who would have thought that a self-proclaimed “progressive” government would be so regressive in its pursuit of moral conformity?
The applicant’s website is investigated and ties to any Christian denomination are traced to statements of faith which, unsurprisingly, refer to Biblical truths about foundational issues, including life, marriage and sexuality. News articles are clipped, without reference to date, context, source, author or even the accuracy and truth of the piece. These are then used as “proof” of ineligibility for the CSJ grants.
Scores of applicants are now getting letters asking for more information based on the “concerns” raised by “information [found] in the public domain … regarding the eligibility” of the application. The letter goes on to allege that the project or job discriminates contrary to applicable laws because it restricts access to employment.
Though not a human rights tribunal and with no jurisdiction to determine whether and how an organization meets the test for applying bona fide occupational requirements, Service Canada still demands that applicants provide this additional information to satisfy an unidentified threshold in order for the application to move forward.
The applicant is given a mere “5 business days following the date of this correspondence” to provide the “additional information and clarification.” Obviously, gathering the requested materials in such a short time frame will be nearly impossible for many organizations, especially given government-imposed stay-at-home orders and other restrictions. It is all a show of impartiality. In reality, the tight schedule means many camps may simply give up their CSJ application in frustration. If a government, ideologically opposed to Christian camps, wanted to ensure that few of them could qualify, the CSJ program was well planned and executed beautifully to achieve that goal.
No matter your beliefs or non-beliefs, this should be deeply concerning. Government is vetting applicants to ensure their beliefs align with those the government holds. You may agree with the government now and applaud these efforts. But what if the regime changes and yours are subject to such vetting, exclusion and derision? Given the current polarization of politics that possibility is real.
Indeed, this is the very reason why our nation is founded on the rule of law. The rule of law recognizes that all citizens are equal. It constrains government powers, protects fundamental rights, limits corruption, upholds order and security, and advances civil and criminal justice. The alternative is to be subject to the arbitrary whims of dictatorial power.
Further, in the letters to applicants, no “applicable laws” are referenced. This is because the law protects the freedom of groups — whether religious, fraternal, philanthropic, etc. — to hire with precisely such bona fide occupational requirements. These protections are primarily found in various human rights codes. But that is just part of the protection afforded to groups in a free and democratic society.
The law also protects religious freedom, religious equality and demands the state be neutral in how it treats different beliefs. Indeed, the Supreme Court of Canada has stated that in a free and democratic society, the state “may not act in such as way as to create a preferential public space that favours certain religious groups and is hostile to others” (Mouvement laique Quebecois v. Saguenay (City) 2015 SCC 16 at para. 76). Rather, it has a duty of religious neutrality that “requires the state to encourage everyone to participate freely in public life regardless of their beliefs (para. 76).
Charter rights are intended to act as a shield to protect the citizen against the state. Charter rights are not intended to act a sword wielded by the state to enforce moral conformity.
The perspective of shield versus sword is incredibly important. You see, if Charter rights become swords by which to enforce moral conformity, we effectively give licence to government actors to screen out beliefs — and CSJ applicants — who hold beliefs different to and perhaps even at odds with, those the government promotes.
In the case of summer camps, for example, our “woke” government cannot fathom the reality that while a life-affirming belief system undergirds their mission and desire to serve all children, they aren’t consumed with a hidden agenda to prevent access to abortion above all else. Is it possible that the government is projecting its own methods onto those with whom it morally disagrees? If government is willing to hand out CSJ grants to groups who are advocating the government’s own moral precepts, but not to groups who do the same thing on the “wrong” or “unenlightened” side, then the government is not being neutral with regard to beliefs.
The Supreme Court of Canada is clear: “when the state treats […] religious practices of beliefs as less important or less true than the practices of others, or when it marginalizes [a] religious community in some way, it is not simply rejecting the individual’s views and values, it is denying his or her equal worth” (para. 73). But for CSJ grants, Christian applicants who would reasonably expect that the rule of law entitles them to be eligible for government funding programs are excluded.
Let’s face it. Christians are taxpayers too. They have every right to be granted CSJ funding regardless of their pro-life beliefs or their belief in traditional marriage. We have not, yet, arrived at the place where such convictions are against the law. Even so, that day does seem closer when Christians with these beliefs are being treated as second-class citizens. Intentional or not, that is the message the federal government is sending to the scores of Christian charities which it will not fund because it finds their perceived moral squint unacceptable.
It seems that living by such moral principles as Christianity teaches — to respect one another, to live a life of love, peace, kindness, self-control — is to forfeit one’s full and equal worth in the eyes of our present government. It is a disturbing reality to say the least. Let’s be honest. The government is saying “Christians need not apply.”
Is it any wonder then that two Christian organizations just recently finished their arguments in the hearings of their cases against the federal government over its discriminatory practice in awarding CSJ grants? We hope to hear from the Federal Court in the coming weeks in the cases of Redeemer University College v. Canada, FC Docket: T-916-19; and BCM International (Canada) Inc. v. Canada, FC Docket: T-918-19.