A few years ago, two Toronto men sat in a courtroom defending their charter right to religious freedom. Peter Styrsky and Shahrooz Kharaghani were reverends in the Church of the Universe.
Their crime? Trafficking marijuana. They argued that smoking dope was part of the church’s sacrament. The problem is, they were selling it to the laity, including two police officers posing as members of the flock.
The judge ruled against them. Allowing such behaviour would effectively legalize marijuana and provoke a flood of similar claims.
The case illustrates the difficulty in deciding what constitutes freedom of religion. You can claim something is a sacrament, but not if it can be shown to be a tactic to discriminate or flout the law.
Drawing that line is a challenge.
On Wednesday, the Newfoundland and Labrador Law Society said its benchers have deferred making a decision on whether to permit graduates of a proposed law school in Langley, B.C., to practise law here. Trinity Western University insists that its students vow to only engage in marital sex between a man and a woman — no gays or fornicators allowed.
Three other provinces have already dealt with the issue. Ontario won’t accept the graduates. Nova Scotia only would if the discriminatory policy was dropped. British Columbia’s law society voted to accept them, but then reversed that decision in a vote Tuesday. Since the Supreme Court of Canada had already ruled in favour of TWU in a previous B.C. case, it’s not clear whether the B.C. law society will follow members’ wishes.
Religion is an intangible thing, and that’s certainly the case with Christianity. There are extreme homophobic sects, like the Westboro Baptist Church in the U.S., and those that shun modern technology or modern medicine. Then there are the vast majority of Christians who have managed to muster a reasonable measure of balance and tolerance in this pluralistic society.
To get some perspective on discrimination in this country, it’s instructive to look at recent Statistics Canada data.
In 2011, the most common motivation for hate crimes was race, followed by religion, then sexual orientation. That seems to indicate that homophobic Christians, for example, need protection more than gays do.
But hate crime is broadly defined. The most common category is mischief, accounting for half of all cases. In other words, every time someone scrawls something offensive on the side of a church or synagogue, the tally rises.
Now look at the more violent aspects of hate crime.
In 2010 and 2011, about 70 per cent of violent hate crimes, including assault, were motivated by sexual orientation. Religion? About 20 per cent.
Clearly, there’s more at stake for the otherwise oriented than there is for those who choose to loudly condemn them as sinners. Such sentiments are echoes of a primitive and, to some, un-Christian soul.
Can law societies keep TWU students from practising? That remains to be seen. The law is blind, and usually doesn’t take everyday morals into account. It’s expected that those who practise law will put their personal beliefs aside. If the law did rule according to common morals, however, it’s safe to say that archaic, close-minded institutions like TWU would be ruled out of existence.