Senate passes hate crime law

Bill C-250 seen to erode religious freedom

OTTAWA, ON-Despite an outpouring of concern from thousands of citizens, Canada's Senate voted overwhelmingly (59-11) to approve a private member's bill that adds "sexual orientation" to the Criminal Code section on hate propaganda.

Gay rights activists hailed the passage of Bill C-250, sponsored by outspoken New Democrat Svend Robinson (currently on medical leave after admitting to theft).

"As a Canadian, I feel very proud that both of Parliament's chambers sent a powerful message: hatred is not accepted in Canada. Not only are differences tolerated, but they are given the protection of law," said Gilles Marchildon, executive director of the gay rights' group EGALE.

But the politically-charged bill faced strong opposition from many Christians and political conservatives who say it erodes basic freedoms. "Unfortunately, most Liberals in both the Senate and the House of Commons chose to support an NDP-sponsored law that could put fundamental Canadian freedoms in jeopardy," says Conservative MP Vic Toews, a staunch critic of the bill.

"While opposing the promotion of hatred against anyone, we are deeply concerned about the chilling effect this legislation may have on the legitimate expression of religious belief," says Bruce Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC).

Christians are concerned, among other things, that if an individual uses passages from the Bible in manner that could be considered incitement of hatred, portions of the Bible could be considered hate propaganda as well.

Senator Anne Cools, who championed opposition to C-250 in the Senate, said she fears the bill exposes "millions of Canadians...who hold moral opinions about sexuality, to criminal prosecution."

As EFC director of Law and Public Policy Janet Buckingham sees it, "this legislation comes at a time when issues of sexual morality and marriage are at the forefront of public debate. Without a clear definition of what criminal hatredis, it is ambiguous what public statements will be considered criminal."

Pro-family groups were deeply disappointed by the bill's passage. "[This] represents a significant loss of free speech for Canadians," says Derek Rogusky, vice president of Family Policy for Focus on the Family Canada. "This bill was pushed through Parliament with little public consultation.

"It's unfortunate that both Senators and MPs rejected the concerns of thousands of Canadians and ignored the huge flood of correspondence they received about this bill. Canadians are now stuck with poorly worded legislation, and it's left to the courts to define what is and what isn't hate propaganda," says Rogusky.

Other networks of concerned Christians, such as the Canada Family Action Coalition (CFAC) and the Concerned Christian Coalition, ran active campaigns to alert Christians about the dangers of the bill and stimulate grassroots political activity.

CFAC executive director Brian Rushfeldt called C-250 a "draconian piece of legislation that will criminalize people who express an opinion contrary to homosexual behaviour, including views based on religion, conscience, morality, and even medical or humanitarian concerns.?

"Will a religious leader who expresses the view that homosexuality is immoral be convicted of a hate crime?" he asks with grave concern. "There is a growing trend among courts and human rights tribunals to rule against religious freedom in favour of homosexual rights."

Activists on all sides see gay rights issues, including changes to the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples, as a significant battleground in the impending federal election.

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