Calgary Bishop Fred Henry is calling for an overhaul of legislation governing human rights commissions (HRCs).
"Human rights laws, designed as a shield, are now being used as a sword," Henry wrote in a Dec. 31, 2007 email from Calgary, in what he described as an increasingly "bizarre" series of events.
The recent filing of human rights complaints against Maclean's Magazine for an excerpt of Mark Steyn's bestselling book America Alone, and against Catholic Insight Magazine for articles outlining Catholic teaching on homosexuality, are only the latest in a series of cases that have targeted freedom of speech and religious freedom.
The Catholic Civil Rights League (CCRL) described the cases as part of an "ongoing pattern in the use of human rights commissions to penalize the expression of unpopular opinions."
The CCRL's comments came in a Dec. 31, 2007 alert to members entitled, "Stop the use of human rights commissions in free speech cases."
"The league is concerned about this disturbing trend, since it often involves opinions based on religious beliefs," said CCRL executive director Joanne McGarry.
Henry agrees. "The issue is rarely true discrimination but rather censorship and enshrinement of a particular ideology through threats, sanctions and punitive measures."
In 2005, Henry faced two separate complaints to the Alberta Human Rights Commission (AHRC) for allegedly discriminatory comments in a pastoral letter on marriage. "I challenged one by one the standard arguments used to support same sex unions as the equivalent of traditional marriage," Henry said.
Though the complaints were eventually dropped, Henry described the process as "fundamentally flawed," and closely resembling "kangaroo courts."
Presumption of guilt
Among those flaws are: the "presumption of guilt until you can prove your innocence; the open-ended time lines for dealing with a complaint; and unjust incurring of financial expenditures for the defendant in the simple event of a complaint being lodged."
The AHRC covers the complainants' costs. Human rights commissions, (HRCs), were set up to protect people against discrimination when it came to housing, employment or services. Henry pointed out how existing human rights legislation needed to be interpreted broadly to allow the complaints against him.
"It was surprising the commission accepted the complaints on the basis of 'goods/services refused and terms of goods/services,' as there was no explanation as to what constituted goods or services refused, or their terms," Henry said. "Nor did the complainants set out the manner of discrimination in other areas.
"I believe these complaints were an attempt to intimidate and silence me."
Henry called for a clear separation of the many roles now played by human rights commissions. These roles include promoting human rights, investigating complaints, conciliating complaints, acting in the public interest and advocating for an expanded interpretation of the Canadian Human Rights Act.
The CCRL does not want to see HRCs involved in freedom of speech issues at all.
"The league has refrained from making hate speech complaints to any courts or commission, even though some of the anti-Catholic content we address, and the remarks directed at us in the course of our work, could certainly be described as demeaning if not downright hateful," McGarry said in the alert.
"In our view, the importance of free speech supersedes whether we agree with what others are saying."
"As a civil rights organization, we recognize that freedom of expression and freedom of religious expression are two of the most important values for Canadians," she said in an interview.
"Freedom of expression is an important enough value that any curtailment of it must be held to the much higher standard required by a court," she said.
That includes the presumption of innocence, both parties facing equal costs and the possibility that frivolous complaints could result in the complainant picking up the defendant's court costs.