Freedom of religion under threat, Canadian bishops warn

Edmonton, Canada - Canada’s Catholic bishops issued an open letter Monday calling on Canadians to stand up for their faith, even if they suffer for it.

The letter, from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said they are concerned “radical secularism” is squeezing religion out of public policy debate in countries such as Canada, while internationally Christians are being persecuted in violent attacks.

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said Monday morning that people who act out their faith are praised when they dedicate their efforts to social issues such as caring for the poor or housing the homeless.

“Where things do get a little nasty sometimes is when the freedom of religion and its free expression challenges the status quo,” Smith said.

“For example, if the church speaks out on the right to life, if the church speaks on particular definitions of marriage or family. That’s when you start to hear things like, ‘Just keep this in the private sphere. Keep those beliefs to yourself. That’s OK for the privacy of your home and the privacy of church, but it should have no bearing on the public sphere, on the formulation of public policy.’ ”

Smith, who is president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, discussed the pastoral letter as part of his annual breakfast with local reporters. Smith said he was glad the issue of conscience rights was raised in Alberta during last month’s provincial election, but said he found the level of debate on the subject disappointing.

The 12-page letter on freedom of religion and conscience rights says that bishops’ concerns in Canada often relate to rules that limit the right to conscientious objection by people in the health care and education sectors, as well as the political realm.

“At times, believers are being legally compelled to exercise their profession without reference to their religious or moral convictions, and even in opposition to them,” the letter says.

“For example, some colleges of physicians require that members who refuse to perform abortions refer patients to another physician willing to do so,” it continues. “Elsewhere pharmacists are being threatened by being forced to have to fill prescriptions for contraceptives or the ‘morning after’ pills; and marriage commissioners in British Columbia, Manitoba, Newfoundland and Saskatchewan must now perform same-sex marriages or resign.”

The bishops urge all Canadians, especially Catholics, to actively get involved in every sector of public life and make their views known.