After years of contentious debate, the Canadian government has made it a crime to spread hate propaganda against sexual orientation. While united in opposing hate speech against any group, Canadian Christians are divided over the import of the amendment.

On April 28, senators voted 59-11 to pass Bill C-250, which adds sexual orientation to a law that makes it illegal to incite hatred against identifiable groups based on color, race, religion, and ethnicity. Bill C-250 amends subsections 318 and 319 of Canada's Criminal Code. They prohibit (1) "advocating genocide"; (2) "public incitement of hatred"; and (3) "willful promotion of hatred." Those found guilty face maximum two-year jail terms. The same subsections also make it illegal to promote hatred against anyone expressing "an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text."

Some Christians wonder whether they will now be able to speak freely about homosexuality. "We are deeply concerned about the chilling effect this legislation may have," Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) president Bruce Clemenger said in a statement. "We as a religious community want to ensure that the purpose of prohibiting hate speech does not criminalize the legitimate expression of religious belief, the resulting views of morality, nor religious texts."

Christian critics argue that the law does not define either hatred or sexual orientation, making the legal boundaries unclear. They note that while the law includes an exception for good-faith religious speech, that provision applies only to the promotion of hatred.

Janet Epp Buckingham, director of law and public policy for the EFC, told CT, "Christians have seen their rights to dissent restricted by case after case in the courts." In a recent case brought under the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code, the EFC said, the court ruled that certain Bible verses were used to incite hatred.

Darrel Reid, president of Focus on the Family's Canadian branch, said the legislation might lead to self-censorship. "It is likely that this will inevitably influence the way the church speaks about marriage and family," he said.

However, supporters of the law, including the Canadian Unitarian Council, deny that C-250 will limit religious speech. Mark Morrison-Reed of the CUC said in a statement, "The Charter of Rights and the Criminal Code already protect freedom of religious expression." According to Amnesty International Canada, "a conviction will result in only the clearest cases and most egregious circumstances. Moreover, Bill C-250 would not prevent people from believing what they wish."

For now, some Christian groups are urging watchfulness and prayer. Others say that the legislators who voted for C-250 must be voted out and that Christians should intentionally test the limits of the law.

Glenn Penner, communications director of Voice of the Martyrs in Canada, is taking a wait-and-see approach. "The wording of the legislation is so vague, there is no way of knowing how it will be interpreted," Penner said. "We don't expect the worst-case scenario that people will be burning Bibles tomorrow."

Carol Lowes in Toronto, with CT staff reports.

Related Elsewhere:

Weblog has been following the bill:

Canadian House Passes Bill Critics Say May Ban Bible Passages (Sept. 18, 2003)
The Bible as Canadian Hate Literature (April 29, 2004)

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