By Don Hutchinson

Wednesday, February 27, 2013 was a “red letter” day for Canadian Christians. Red letter has two variant meanings, both of which might be considered applicable.

The “red letter” concept originates with the decorative medieval manuscripts of the Bible that often started the initial words of select Bible passages with ornate letters. The concept transitioned to be associated with days of special significance when Sunday and religious holidays were similarly illuminated on calendars. In that sense, the issuing of the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission v. William Whatcott made it a significant day; as did the vote of Canada’s Parliament on a proposal to establish a national strategy to ensure adequate housing for Canadians, particularly to address the needs of Canada’s more than 300,000 homeless.

Red letter has also come to be a shorthand reference for printed Bibles in which the words of Jesus are printed in red, a practice started at the beginning of the 20th century to assist non-scholars to quickly identify His words using the colour of His blood that was shed for the forgiveness of our sins. Biblical principles apply in both instances – the Whatcott decision and the vote on C-400.

The Whatcott case was about freedom of speech based on religious beliefs. Mr. Whatcott distributed flyers in Regina and Saskatoon in 2001 and 2002. The flyers contained vehement comments about the sexual practices of same-sex couples. They also shared Mr. Whatcott’s views on morality, sexual behavior and public policy; expressing his opposition to school children being taught about homosexuality, criticizing homosexual behavior and the advertising practices of a gay magazine. Mr. Whatcott noted that the flyers prepared and distributed by him reflected his religious beliefs.

The SCC used this opportunity to clarify and narrow the understanding of ‘hate speech’ limitations on the right to freedom of expression as set out in its 1990 decision in the Canada (Human rights commission v. Taylor case. In doing so the court affirmed that precedent, even a 4-3 split from 20 years ago, remains binding law in Canada. This is vital to the stability of Canadian law. The importance of precedent will hopefully also be displayed in key cases coming before the court on prostitution (Bedford) and assisted suicide (Carter) where similar earlier decisions of the SCC will come into play.

The decision also touched on different aspects of freedom of religion and concluded that the Bible could not be considered as hate speech. The court is clear that Bible passages, biblical beliefs and the principles derived from those beliefs can be legally and reasonably advanced in public discourse. Basically, the court affirmed the biblical principal of telling ‘the truth in love,’ while cautioning as to where the line is drawn that would result in telling the truth in a hateful fashion. Essentially:

Galatians 5:22-23 (Contemporary English Version)

22 God’s Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, 23 gentle, and self-controlled. There is no law against behaving in any of these ways.

To read more about the Whatcott decision, see my analysis in What does the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision mean to you?

In addition to the court stuff this week, the House of Commons wasn’t quiet!

The government defeated Bill C-400, a private member’s bill (PMB) that proposed Canada’s development of a long needed national housing strategy. My colleague Julia Beazley summarizes the issue nicely in her blog Should Stephen Harper take the lead on behalf of more than 300,000 homeless Canadians? Setting aside Mr. Mulcair’s unapologetic remarks about Evangelicals (we forgive while not forgetting) The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada continued our engagement to support this NDP led initiative designed to provide for those in need.

The defeat on C-400 was a disappointment for those of us concerned about Canada’s growing homelessness numbers, now over 300,000. Canada’s housing crisis is being addressed by churches, volunteers, shelters, aboriginal leaders and other private participants working with municipal, provincial and federal opportunities as a diverse patchwork across the nation which could be more efficient and effective if coordinated into a pattern with consistency of standards to meet needs. The diverse group on the frontlines has called on the federal government to use its unique gathering power to bring us together and establish a coordinated agenda – something Mr. Harper’s government did well with the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking.

Troubling – at least for me – was that Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board, held a press conference and the Conservative Party issued a media release stating it would cost $5.5 billion to implement Bill C-400. The rules for PMBs clearly prohibit them reaching the House of Commons if they propose government expenditures. In fact, that is one of the conditions used in vetting PMBs by a votability committee of MPs when they assess whether a PMB may be considered by the House. The Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC) also boldly asserts the $5.5 billion number in a backgrounder on Bill C-400 that then proceeds to list current federal government initiatives on housing (which I applaud) without offering any justification for how it arrived at the expansive number it estimates C-400 would have cost.

There are a lot of ways to have a conversation about developing a strategy. On the National Action Plan to Combat Human Trafficking we all paid our own expenses to participate in the process. Net cost to the federal government was the space and staff attendance to read our submissions, attend meetings and coordinate conference calls. A great strategy emerged. If the government already has a plan that it costed out at $5.5 billion then let’s see it so we can work on reducing the cost and meeting the need.

If Mr. Harper and the Conservative caucus, which members in attendance voted unanimously against the bill, have a plan to address this crisis I know it would be welcome. Until then, the patchwork continues and 300,000 Canadians remain homeless; still more with inadequate housing. Certainly for those of us in the Church we will continue to be motivated to meet needs based on these red letter words:

Matthew 25:34-40 (Contemporary English Version)

34 Then the king will say to those on his right, “My father has blessed you! Come and receive the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world was created. 35 When I was hungry, you gave me something to eat, and when I was thirsty, you gave me something to drink. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me, 36 and when I was naked, you gave me clothes to wear. When I was sick, you took care of me, and when I was in jail, you visited me.”

37 Then the ones who pleased the Lord will ask, “When did we give you something to eat or drink? 38 When did we welcome you as a stranger or give you clothes to wear 39 or visit you while you were sick or in jail?”

40 The king will answer, “Whenever you did it for any of my people, no matter how unimportant they seemed, you did it for me.”

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