What does the Supreme Court decision in the Whatcott case mean for religious communication?

This article was originally published in Faith Today, May/June 2013

By Don Hutchinson

Several years ago, there was an urban legend circulating that a pastor was convicted and imprisoned by a human rights commission for his comments on “sin” in a sermon recorded without authorization by a visitor. One version said this happened in Windsor, another said Lethbridge.

 While human rights commissions don’t have the power to convict anyone of a crime or imprison anyone, the damage was done. Most Canadians are not familiar with human rights tribunals or how to search the law to see if such a story is true. No doubt there were sermon writers who avoided potentially controversial issues as a result. Pastors don’t unnecessarily jeopardize their availability to shepherd their flock.

There were also real human rights complaints in many provinces about Christians preaching, teaching or writing about marriage as consisting of one woman and one man, with sexual behaviour outside that relationship considered “sinful.” Some Christians expressed these ideas about sex and marriage in contemporary, everyday language. Others used wording that echoed the 1611 King James Bible.

Few people were able to track the broader picture – that most of these complaints went nowhere. A few progressed, largely due to poorly reasoned human rights tribunal decisions, but most were later overturned by the real courts.

The urban legends added to the real – but mostly unsuccessful – complaints. Together they heightened general concerns, unjustly inflicted fear and induced a “chill” effect on free (religiously informed) speech.

In response, some felt they needed to step forward, perhaps thinking of Peter and John before the Sanhedrin when they replied, “Do you think God wants us to obey you or to obey him? We cannot keep quiet about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20, CEV).

Unfortunately, not all of them heeded Jesus’ teaching to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves”  (Matthew 10:16, KJV). Or as the retired politician Preston Manning paraphrases it, avoid being vicious as snakes and stupid as pigeons.

What all this comes down to, of course, is whether wise or non-criminal harmful words matter in our society – a constitutionally proclaimed “free and democratic society” with a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees “freedom of conscience and religion” and “freedom of expression.”

In the Whatcott decision released Feb. 27, the Supreme Court of Canada has again answered “yes” to that question – the choice of words and the harm they cause do matter.

The court found the Bible itself cannot be accused of being harmful or hateful, except in the rarest of circumstance and context. But how we choose to express principles stated in or developed from the Scriptures – these may indeed be harmful or hateful.

The 6-0 decision in the Whatcott case (more details at www.theEFC.ca/whatcott) did not zero in on absolute truth, but on whether the expressions used could be objectively viewed as “detestation” and “vilification” of an identifiable group of people. Was the wording that caused the complaint indeed the language of condemnation?

All of us, regardless of religious tradition, know about condemning language, don’t we? Even as children, when we defended ourselves by chanting, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” we were usually doing so to cover up the hurt that someone’s unkind words had inflicted on us.

Hurt feelings are subjective and insufficient to trigger concern of the courts, but expressed hatred based on the characteristics of a group of people identified by those characteristics – whether religion, ethnicity, race or sexual orientation – may well cross the line to potential financial penalties.

The Apostle Paul offers good advice, “Be wise in the way you act toward others; make good use of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, choose your words carefully and be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks questions” (Colossians 4:5-6a, paraphrased). And similarly, “God’s Spirit makes us loving, happy, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled. There is no law against behaving in any of these ways” (Galatians 5:22-23, CEV).


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