The Story: On Wednesday, Canada’s Supreme Court upheld a ban on “hate speech” contested by a Christian activist, ruling that the country’s hate speech ban “is a reasonable limit on freedom of religion and is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
The Background: William Whatcott, a former homosexual turned Christian activist, published and distributed flyers in 2001 and 2002 which which contained various harsh statements about homosexuals and pedophiles. A complaint was filed with Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission alleging Whatcott was promoting hatred against individuals based on their sexual orientation. The Human Rights Tribunal held the publications contravened a section of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code on the basis that Whatcott’s views exposed persons to hatred and ridicule on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Whatcott argued that he was entitled to make the statements based on his constitutional protected right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion and that the section of the Human Rights Code was unconstitutional.
The Supreme Court of Canada, however, ruled that the sections of the Human Rights Code that prohibited hatred against persons based on a prohibited ground of discrimination was constitutional and that Whatcott’s speech was not protected on the basis of freedom of expression or freedom of religion.
Why It Matters: The ruling has potentially broad implications for the Christian witness in Canada. For instance, the court ruled that making claims which could be construed as “detesting or vilifying” homosexual behavior is enough to classify speech as “hate speech”:
Courts have recognized a strong connection between sexual orientation and sexual conduct and where the conduct targeted by speech is a crucial aspect of the identity of a vulnerable group, attacks on this conduct stand as proxy for attacks on the group itself. If expression targeting certain sexual behaviour is framed in such a way as to expose persons of an identifiable sexual orientation to what is objectively viewed as detestation and vilification, it cannot be said that such speech only targets the behaviour. It quite clearly targets the vulnerable group.
The ruling also states that suppression of “hate speech”—such as claiming that homosexual behavior is immoral—is so important that it justifies infringing on religious freedom and provides a basis for a “reasonable limit on freedom of religion and is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The court also explained that truth was no defense since “Truthful statements can be presented in a manner that would meet the definition of hate speech, and not all truthful statements must be free from restriction.”
This standard is then used to justify a draconian standard of censorship:
If, despite the context of the entire publication, even one phrase or sentence is found to bring the publication, as a whole, in contravention of the Code, this precludes its publication in its current form.
The court used the preceding standard to scrutinize the flyers and even considered whether Walcott’s quotation of Matthew 18:6 can be characterized as “hate speech.” The court determined that it was not and added:
While use of the Bible as a credible authority for a hateful proposition has been considered a hallmark of hatred, it would only be unusual circumstances and context that could transform a simple reading or publication of a religion’s holy text into what could objectively be viewed as hate speech.
The Court doesn’t seem to be too familiar with the “holy text” of Judaism and Christianity since by their own standard the presence of Leviticus 18:22 (“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”) would warrant classifying the Bible as a hate speech document. The court clearly states that,
If expression targeting certain sexual behaviour is framed in such a way as to expose persons of an identifiable sexual orientation to what is objectively viewed as detestation and vilification, it cannot be said that such speech only targets the behaviour. It quite clearly targets the vulnerable group. [emphasis added]
If criticism of homosexual behavior is construed as criticism of homosexuals then a “simple reading” of the Lev. 18 and context clearly shows that the passage “could objectively be viewed as hate speech.” While Canada’s Supreme Court justices may not understand what is in the “holy text” used by Christians, homosexual rights activists certainly do—and they will expect the legal system to consistently apply the logic of the Court’s ruling.
Equally troubling is that Christian ministers who condemn homosexual behavior can be subject to hate crime prosecution. Canada’s Supreme Court has determined that speaking out against destructive homosexual behaviors could be construed as vilification of homosexuals and therefore is prohibited in most circumstances. This is a radical standard that could severely hamper Christian witness.
Although Jesus said “the truth will set you free,” in Canada speaking the same truths proclaimed in God’s Word could potentially land Christians in jail.