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Religion and sexuality: recent controversies in Canada

Although opposition to sexual equality rights (such as abortion, same-sex marriage, sex workers’ rights) is not confined to individuals or groups who identify as religious, frequently the loudest voices heard in public debates and legal controversies are those claiming opposition based on religious freedom rights.

The organization of opposition to constitutional and legislative change often is represented by specific religious groups, Catholic, Evangelical Christian, Muslim and Orthodox Jews. Particularly in relation to legal changes, such as the redefinition of marriage from heterosexual (one man and one woman) to include same-sex couples (two persons), groups such as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, Interfaith Coalition on Marriage and Family are frequently named interveners in the legal disputes, although other groups (i.e. REAL Woman of Canada) are also vocal about their positions, whether on their websites or in media interviews.

Members of religious organizations do not always conform to the doctrine of their religious tradition; frequently lived religious practice and official teaching diverge from one another, often on issues such as abortion or same-sex marriage. Importantly, the organization and dominance of particular religious voices in opposition to marriage equality for same-sex couples, access to abortion or the rights of sex workers’ misses two very important issues.

First, many religious individuals and groups have been actively fighting to support the rights of sexual minorities, access to abortion services for women and the rights of sex workers. For example, in the Ontario civil union case, the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto specifically argued that the inability to perform same-sex marriages violated their religious freedom rights; see Halpern v Canada, [2003] OJ No 2268 [Ontario Court of Appeal].

Further, in an open letter submitted to the justice committee in response to Bill C-36, the legislation developed by the government after the Bedford case, dozens of Anglican clergy argued that the proposed law is immoral and would pose risks to sex workers’ safety (see “Anglican Clergy call prostitution bill immoral,” Maclean’s, Rachel Browne, 2014).

Oppositional attitudes to these particular debates are seen outside religious groups and attitudes, and in fact restrictive, oppositional viewpoints are witnessed in daily expressions of discrimination as experienced by women who seek abortions (or who argue that access to abortion ought to be more widely available), sexual minorities and same-sex couples, and sex workers (see Catherine G Taylor & Tracey Peter, et al, Every Class in Every School: Final Report on the First National Climate Survey on Homophobia, Biphobia, and Transphobia in Canadian Schools. Toronto, Egale Canada Human Rights Trust, 2011).

Consequentially, perceptions about religious identity are often that religion ‘inherently’ opposes sexually diverse identities, access to abortion or sex workers rights and further ties religiosity to conservative (negatively connoted) identities. This public perception frames religion and sexuality as opponents, whereby to be religious is to be anti-X (LGBTQI, feminist) and to be LGBTQI, feminist, sex worker or seeking an abortion is to be anti-religious.

See a list of relevant decisions.

7 December 2017