Canada’s former ambassador for religious freedom once fought religious persecution overseas.
Now Rev. Dr. Andrew Bennett, a Catholic deacon, is sounding an alarm over controversial new restrictions to Canada Summer Jobs applicants. He warns that the changes infringe on the fundamental rights of all Canadians, not only people of faith.
“We need to be worried about this as Canadians, because regardless of where you stand on the abortion debate, regardless of where you stand on marriage or on gender identity, as Canadians we should be defending freedom of expression,” Bennett said in an exclusive interview with Grandin Media.
“It’s something that Canadians of all religious backgrounds, of all belief systems, need to stand up and say ‘Enough is enough.’ The government cannot dictate what Canadians should or should not believe to access certain government programs.”
Bennett was appointed by the former Conservative government as Canada’s first ambassador for religious freedom, an office that involved advising developing countries. He served for three years until 2016, when the office was abolished by the Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
It’s that government that now requires applicants for funding under the Canada Summer Jobs program to attest that both the job and the organization’s “core mandate” supports the “right to access to safe and legal abortions,” and the government’s interpretation of rights pertaining to sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has joined the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), the Canadian Council of Christian Charities (CCCC) and other organizations in attacking the policy, which was announced just before Christmas. Applications for summer jobs grants close on Feb. 2. If the attestation is not checked off, the application is considered incomplete and will not be considered.
Trudeau told a town hall in Hamilton this week that religious groups should still apply for the program, calling them “an important and wonderful part of our society.”
However, he said groups with “the explicit purpose of restricting women’s rights by removing rights to abortion and the right for women to control their own bodies” are “not in line with where we are as a government, and quite frankly where we are as a society.”
But Bennett argues that those restrictions are unacceptable in any liberal democracy that prides itself on pluralism.
“What we see in this current initiative by the federal government is effectively a fairly egregious limit on freedom of expression and by extent, freedom of religion,” said Bennett, now the director of the law program at Cardus, a Christian think tank based in Hamilton.
Applicants under the Canada Summer Jobs Program may be opposed to the government’s view on abortion or gender identity, he said, and “what the federal government is forcing that person to do is to have a political opinion, and either check or not check that box, and that, effectively, is a religious test.”
Employment Minister Patty Hajdu has said the federal government is working closely with faith groups applying for the Canada Summer Jobs Program, to “make sure that they understand that as long as their core mandate is not in violation of Canadian human rights and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and it’s not violating a woman’s ultimate right to control her own body.”
But Bennett said “the role of the government is not determine what sorts of ethical, moral and religious views Canadians should be free to practise.
“A government that seeks to do that, that seeks to constrain people’s ability to express themselves … that seeks to constrain a collectivity of individuals who practice the same faith to exercise the same faith, a government that seeks to do that, that is nothing short of a totalitarianism.”
He sees the controversy over the Canada Summer Jobs Program as a part of a shift toward a set of values determined by the federal government and away from diversity including people of faith.
“They’re saying ‘You must ascribe to the rights as advanced in the Charter, and these so-called underlying values. Well, who has established those values? These are subject to serious debate.”
As a Catholic deacon, Bennett embraces the traditional definition of marriage and sexual identity. However, persecuting others for different values is “unacceptable”.
“What we need to have in our society is dialogue. We need to have debate. And that debate needs to be constantly informed by charity and by the desire to recognize the dignity of the other person.”
Some freedom of conscience cases are now before the courts, involving the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario on the issues of abortion and euthanasia and Trinity Western University’s proposed law school, which requires student to sign a community covenant that says any sexual behaviour must be confined to traditional marriage.
There has also been sustained criticism of taxpayer funding for Catholic schools and health care organizations, but Bennett said that argument is based on “weak logic.”
“There are a lot of Catholic taxpayers in this country. There are a lot of Jewish taxpayers in this country. There are a lot of Muslim taxpayers in this country who have every right to have these institutions supported by their tax dollars.”
Bennett said the current controversies are a call to action. He said people of faith do not know how to live a “robust religious freedom,” and he hopes that communities remember the importance of that freedom and its connection to democracy itself.
“Our baptism calls us to live a public faith … Simply because Parliament passes a law and it’s signed into law, just because it’s legal does not mean it’s true. If legislated law violates the moral law, we are duty-bound as Catholics not to obey it.”
Grandin Media conducted a wide-ranging interview with Bennett, which will be posted to our website soon as part of a series of interviews with Catholic newsmakers.
-With files from Canadian Catholic News