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Remaining silent

International | CANADA: Parliament OKs a law to criminalize speech deemed "anti-gay"

Issue: "Abortion: All the rage," May 8, 2004

Sometimes, protesters prove their opponents' point. In Canada last month, a dozen masked men wearing military camouflage burst into a Christian meeting at a Calgary, Alberta, hotel. They beat sticks together, hoisted signs, and roared slogans, drowning out a speech by Rev. Tristan Emmanuel on "Christophobia" and the actions taken against Christians for their unpopular views on homosexuality.

"Haters!" screamed the self-proclaimed "Gay Militia" into the faces of men and women who had been meeting peacefully. "Bigots! ... What you are doing is a hate crime!"

The raucous invasion lasted 10 to 15 minutes, said Jim Blake, regional director of the Concerned Christian Coalition, the group that sponsored the meeting. The Gay Militia ignored both meeting organizers and hotel security personnel who asked them to leave. When the men finally did march out, just ahead of the arrival of police, Mr. Blake was left to wonder again, just who is "hating" whom?

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In Canada, the Gay Militia's definition of "hate"-expressing public opposition to homosexuality-is now officially the law of the land. Bill C-250, which adds "sexual orientation" to the nation's wide-ranging hate-propaganda law, sailed through the Senate on April 28 on a vote of 59-11. Before C-250 it was already illegal to publish, distribute, mail, import, or speak any communication that could be perceived as promoting or inciting "hate" against "identifiable groups," such as members of a certain race or gender. The new law recognizes gays and lesbians as an identifiable group-and makes any person who criticizes homosexuals publicly subject to two years in jail.

The bill's salient text reads like an Inner Party edict out of 1984:

"Every one who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, willfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group is guilty of ... an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years."

That punishment might not be enough to suit Svend Robinson, the left-wing parliamentarian who authored C-250. In an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail last year, Mr. Robinson made it clear that he hopes his measure will criminalize not violence, but speech per se, making "the current use of homophobic pejoratives in public schools and in public places" socially and criminally reprehensible.

On record as labeling Christian leaders "ecclesiastical dictators," Mr. Robinson was the first openly gay member of the Canadian legislature. He is also the most recent member to step down. Video surveillance cameras recorded the lawmaker as he swiped a $50,000 ring from an auction house (WORLD, May 1). Confessing his crime at a tearful press conference, Mr. Robinson dabbed his eyes with tissue and explained that he'd "just snapped" under stress.

Mr. Robinson wasn't in Parliament to savor his moment of victory. While a special prosecutor weighs whether to charge him with theft for a crime that's been replayed endlessly on Canadian television, Mr. Robinson is on "extended medical leave," ordered by his doctor to avoid all political activity.

That kind of instability, and his history of anti-Christian invective, has Canadian conservatives skeptical of Mr. Robinson's claims that C-250-which lives on in spite of its author's political demise-provides a religious exemption. The bill does state that a person won't be prosecuted for anti-gay speech "if, in good faith, he expressed ... an opinion based on a belief in a religious text." But at least one Saskatchewan court has already held that certain Bible passages expose homosexuals to hatred.

Even without C-250, London, Ontario, officials recently slapped a Christian mayor with a $10,000 fine for refusing to proclaim "Gay Pride Day." A Christian businessman in Toronto was fined $5,000 for refusing to print materials for a gay-rights group.

In light of C-250's passage, church-law analysts already are advising religious leaders on how to shield themselves. Attorney Bruce W. Long in a March issue of Church Law Bulletin wrote: "Churches and religious organizations may want to consider ... avoiding public criticisms of identifiable groups ... limiting opinions to private conversation, and if targeted or investigated, relying on the constitutional right to remain silent."

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