Monday, August 23, 2004

Censoring the Bible Violates Rights

Censoring the Bible
National Post
Monday, August 23, 2004

In Canada, as in most Western nations, laws prohibiting the wilful incitement to hatred receive strong approval from the general public. Indeed, they are widely seen as a legal codification of our tolerant creed. But a recent Swedish case serves as a timely reminder of the perverse consequences that such laws can produce.

Earlier this summer, a Swedish court invoked that country's hate-speech law to sentence a Pentecostal pastor to one month in prison for preaching a vociferous sermon against homosexuality. The pastor, Ake Green, had labelled homosexuals "perverts whose sexual drive the Devil has used as his strongest weapon against God."

In making his case against the pastor, the public prosecutor explained: "One may have whatever religion one wishes, but [the sermon] is an attack on all fronts against homosexuals. Collecting Bible [verses] on this topic as he does makes this hate speech."

What about the pastor's religious freedom -- not to mention his freedom of speech? For the Swedish court, these considerations were trumped by gay rights. The rock-paper-scissors thinking behind the decision is best summarized by Soren Anderson -- president of a Swedish lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights foundation -- who told journalists religious freedom can never provide justification to offend people.

While Mr. Green's prosecution may be unusual, and his religious views extreme, his case highlights a broader conflict already beginning to play out in this country. In 2002, a federal court in Saskatchewan effectively equated Bible passages condemning homosexuality with hate literature. And a recently passed piece of national legislation, Bill C-250, has extended Canada's hate-speech law to protect homosexuals. It, too, has an exemption for expressed views that are "based on a belief in a religious text." But given what has unfolded in Saskatchewan and now Sweden, it seems only a matter of time before this exemption is swept aside or narrowed into meaninglessness by a judge.

Proponents of Bill C-250 have reassured Canadians that the legislation won't censor religious speech so long as such expression does not promote hatred. But the sticky point is that, by modern standards, some parts of the Bible itself can be read as hateful to gays -- Leviticus 18:22 being only one example of many. Indeed, it is not an irrational fear to imagine that a Canadian Ake Green might soon stage a public reading of the Old Testament and get thrown into jail as a result.

This contradiction between secular dogmas of tolerance and religious faith will affect more than just Canada's clergy. While our society's elites have largely rejected religion in favour of secular dogmas, many ordinary citizens have not. Disdain for homosexuality is well-rooted in virtually all traditional religions, the three Abrahamic faiths in particular. To outlaw it is, in essence, to muzzle a fundamental belief embraced by millions of observant Muslims, Christians and Jews.

It is sobering to note that, before Sweden approved the law under which Pastor Green was prosecuted, critics there were reassured by Swedish chancellor of justice Goran Lambertz that the new legislation was about "dangerous Nazi campaigning," not about Christianity. As it turns out, Swedish Evangelical Alliance president Stefan Gustavsson was closer to the truth when he warned that it would be "naive to trust the verbal statements made by the chancellor of justice, and others, that the bill does not target Bible-believing Churches. The courts rule by written law, not by political comments."

The Swedish prosecution should serve as a warning to Canada and other Western nations. While efforts to expand hate-speech censorship are undoubtedly well-meaning, they serve to unduly curtail freedoms of conscience that have formed the centuries-old bedrock of Western societies.