As Canada's first and only religious freedom ambassador, Andrew Bennett spoke out for the persecuted faithful in China and Iran as well as other countries notorious for suppressing freedom of belief.
Fortunately, Canadians are not subjected to religious persecution, but Bennett nevertheless warns that there's been a gradual erosion of religious freedom in Canada that he finds concerning.
“It's been a slow process, but it's manifesting itself more clearly in our present time ... in a variety of different ways,” he told The Epoch Times.
Bennett is the director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute and is an ordained deacon in the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church in the diocese of Toronto and Eastern Canada. He led Canada's Office of Religious Freedom from 2013 to 2016, before it was dismantled under the Liberal government.
Bennett says there is a “narrowing” of religious freedom that manifests in areas such as conscience rights, where legislative changes being made don’t include provisions to allow the faithful to adhere to their deeply held beliefs.
Religious views are also routinely sidelined in civil society and public discourse, including in the development of legislation around sensitive moral issues, he said.
“It's a significant challenge now I think in our country, for people with strong religious views to gain a hearing,” he said.
“Religious views, religious language, is absent from our media. ... It's absent from our political discourse, it's absent from our universities.”
‘Discriminatory’ LegislationTwo controversial pieces of legislation—a bill to ban “conversion therapy” and one to expand access to medical assistance in dying (MAiD)—are examples where the input of faith communities appears to have been ignored, Bennett notes.
The recently passed Bill C-7 expands medically assisted death to those who are not terminally ill and to people living with mental illness. Faith-based groups as well as disability advocates and doctors slammed the bill, saying it creates a culture of easy-access death and puts vulnerable populations at risk of being pressured into assisted dying.
“It concerns me when attempts to bring in conscience rights protection [in] Bill C-7 were just dismissed out of hand,” said Bennett, referring to groups that raised the issue during committee hearings.
Similar to its predecessor Bill C-14, Bill C-7 doesn’t require health-care providers to administer MAiD against their will, but critics say it lacks safeguards for those who refuse to provide or refer patients for assisted death.
The Coalition for HealthCARE and Conscience notes that several provincial regulatory colleges have created policies that force physician participation in referring MAiD even if it goes against their beliefs.
“What will become of physicians who do not believe that administering death is good medicine?” the group asked in a March 9 press release.
Bennett also points to a ruling by Ontario’s highest court in 2019 that compelled doctors in the province to give referrals for medical services such as abortion and euthanasia, even if it clashes with their religious beliefs.
“It's like, you didn't actually rob the bank but you drove the getaway car,” he said of the policy.
Bennett spoke out against the government’s controversial changes to the student summer jobs program in 2018 to fund only those groups that affirmed “reproductive rights” including abortion. The decision showed “open prejudice” against faith-based groups, he said.
“All of a sudden, those organizations were cut out of public funding,” Bennett said. “That's not acceptable, because it's discriminatory.”
Likewise, he is concerned about the protection of constitutional rights around the Liberals’ new “conversion therapy” bill, saying the broad definition of conversion therapy could criminalize basic conversations about sexual identity sought out with church leaders or parents.
Introduced in the House of Commons on Oct. 1, 2020, Bill C-6 seeks to create criminal offences for “a practice, treatment or service designed to change a person’s sexual orientation to heterosexual, to change a person’s gender identity or gender expression to cisgender or to repress or reduce non-heterosexual attraction or sexual behaviour or non-cisgender gender expression.”
Bennett says this definition lumps routine pastoral counselling into the same category as “psychological and physical abuse” historically associated with conversion therapy.
“Conversations of a pastoral nature need to be protected the same way as conversations between a parent and their child need to be protected,” he said.
Lockdown LogicThe issue of religious freedom has come to the fore during the pandemic, as churches clash with health officials over the right to worship and over whether religious services should be deemed “essential.”
Bennett believes caps on indoor gatherings and social distancing requirements are justified. However, he takes issue with the “uneven approach” taken by some jurisdictions toward religious services versus secular services that appears discriminatory or contrary to scientific evidence.
“In British Columbia, places of worship have been closed for months now while in-restaurant dining is still permitted, and other indoor places of gathering have been opened,” he said.
“That's an unreasonable limit on religious freedom, in my view.”
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of community for well-being, whether you’re a religious believer or not, he adds.
The erosion of religious freedom is happening in lockstep with broader cultural changes such as the embrace of secularism, individualism, “extreme materialism,” and a “breaking down of community,” explains Bennett, who is also Cardus's Director of Faith Community Engagement.
But society also has a “narrow understanding” of what religious freedom is, he says, relegating freedom to what happens within the walls of a designated place of worship.
“I can't separate my public self from my religious self, or even see my religious self as a purely private reality,” he said. “Religion throughout human history has been expressed publicly.”
Religious communities have adopted a certain level of self-censorship under the pressure of an increasingly secular society and institutions, he adds.
“We've allowed the public debate in the country to become impoverished because we have not been courageous enough to speak through our experience of our faith and through our religiously held convictions.”
But the health of religious freedom reflects the overall health of a democracy and other fundamental freedoms, he says, and freedoms can only be protected if they are cherished and exercised.
“We have to ensure that we are not taking [freedoms] for granted but nurturing them, and ensuring that public debates in the country are very pluralist and open. And that when we say diversity, we actually mean diversity—we want to have a diversity of dialogue.”