Freedom is like a muscle: when not used and exercised, it becomes weaker and less effective. Religious freedom, like freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, must be exercised if it is to retain its vigour and relevance.
Freedom of religion and conscience is the very first freedom protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter protects the rights of atheists, agnostics, and theists alike to ponder life’s most important questions, like why we exist and what moral code we should follow when living out our lives.
Freedom of conscience and religion is the most fundamental human right, and one which repressive regimes invariably seek to destroy. The reason dictatorships target religion is twofold: totalitarian regimes will not tolerate people who believe in an authority that is higher than the state; and totalitarian regimes do not recognize limits to their entitlement to force people to change their minds. When we marginalize religious freedom by failing to exercise it and defend it, we invite the state into the last refuge for individual liberty, causing damage to the free society and harming all of our freedoms.
This is why religious leaders should not tolerate government violations of religious freedom, unless the government can put forward an intelligent and compelling rationale for measures that are temporary and narrowly tailored so as to violate religious freedom as little as possible. The Charter places the onus on politicians—not the citizens who elected them—to justify “demonstrably” any measure that violates our freedom to move, travel, assemble, associate, and worship.
Under Canada’s Constitution, it’s not up to citizens to have to prove that lockdown measures are causing more harm than good. Rather, the Charter requires politicians to show that lockdown measures do more good than harm, and that the measures are truly necessary to achieve a clear and specific public good.
The response of Canada’s federal and provincial governments to COVID-19 appears to have been driven by Dr. Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, who predicted in March that as many as 510,000 people in the United Kingdom would die of COVID-19, along with 2,200,000 Americans. Once unleashed, this “Ferguson Fever” infected the minds of politicians around the globe, as well as the media and the public at large.
In the name of “saving lives,” politicians have shut down schools, universities, businesses, gyms, recreation and entertainment facilities of every kind, as well as restaurants, bars, pubs, cafes, libraries, mosques, temples, synagogues, churches, and much of the economy. All of this to make room for the predicted wave of COVID-19 patients that could overwhelm our hospitals, needing thousands of ventilators and intensive care units. With very few exceptions, politicians have made no effort to calculate—or even attempt to calculate—the numerous harms (including deaths) and the predictable suffering which these lockdown measures would inflict, and indeed have inflicted, on so many people.
Government measures which continue to violate our human dignity and our fundamental Charter freedoms could arguably have been justified in March, and imposed temporarily at a time when we didn’t know what we know now. We now know that 95 percent of COVID-19 deaths occur among those 60 and older, with more than two-thirds of deaths among people 80 and over, and next-to-zero deaths among people under 20. COVID-19 tragically targets the same demographics as the annual flu. This is what publicly available government data is telling us, from provinces, states, and countries around the world.
What we now know in June, and sadly did not know in March, is that the global COVID-19 death toll (408,000 as of June 8) is within the range of deaths resulting from the annual flu. The annual flu tragically claims between 290,000 and 646,000 lives worldwide each year, most of them people who are elderly and already very sick. Yet Dr. Ferguson’s wildly inaccurate predictions are still used by fearmongering politicians to frighten Canadians into accepting the continued violation of their Charter freedoms to move, travel, associate, assemble, and worship.
Since the lockdown in March, Canada’s premiers have deemed big box stores, hardware stores, abortion clinics, and liquor and marijuana outlets as “essential.” Religious leaders who fail to insist that the government must recognize houses of worship as more essential than gyms and health clubs are doing more harm to religious freedom than politicians.
Perhaps the average religious Canadian cannot be faulted for failing to spend a few minutes to get acquainted with readily available government data that shows that COVID-19 is not more deadly than the annual flu and targets the same demographic as the annual flu. Perhaps the average Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and Jew can be forgiven for remaining fearful when politicians make the demonstrably false claim that COVID-19 threatens children and youth.
Relying on the inaccurate and fear-inducing predictions of March rather than on the facts that have been readily available since early May, the majority of Canada’s religious leaders are asking their flock to behave as though COVID-19 is a very serious threat to everyone, regardless of age or health. These pastors, priests, imams, rabbis, and bishops are touting “safety” and promoting unfounded fear.
In contrast to the layman, religious leaders have a higher duty: to acquaint themselves with the facts that were already available in early May. When politicians impose measures which very obviously violate the freedom of Canadians to practice their faith, religious leaders have a duty to look at the facts, rather than shut down worship services based on dubious political claims.
Why are most of Canada’s religious leaders cooperating actively—and in some cases enthusiastically—with the unjustified suppression of worship by chief medical officers and other government officials?
When the government shuts down temples, churches, mosques, and synagogues on a pretext that ceased to hold water many weeks ago, there is no wisdom in blithely going along with government violations of a fundamental Charter freedom. For Canada’s religious leaders to embrace these continued, unjustified violations of religious freedom is not just foolish, but suicidal.
Lawyer John Carpay is president of the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms (jccf.ca).
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.