Religious Freedom for Faith-Based Institutions like HCH
During my recent Sabbatical I came to a much deeper appreciation for this great country. I had the privilege of spending two months studying the freedom of religion we enjoy in Canada, and in particular, what religious freedom means for institutions. I learned that faith-based institutions enjoy a lot of freedom here, but this needs attention.
Canadians of faith have established all kinds of institutions through which they answer
God’s call to serve people. From Roman Catholic hospitals, to Salvation Army treatment centers for alcohol and drug addiction, to Christian universities, labor unions, and organizations to feed the homeless, they flourish everywhere. Holland Christian Homes is also a faith-based organization. We are not owned by a church, but our Mission Statement states: “We provide a safe, professional and caring community for seniors, based on traditional Christian values.” Governments of Canada channel many health care dollars through faith-based organizations.
There are some countries where such organizations are illegal, and there are many other countries where their freedom is not as great as it is in Canada.
Still there are challenges. Loyola, a private Roman Catholic High School in Quebec, found that out a few years ago when the government of the province would not allow them to teach the Catholic faith as Catholics themselves believe it. It happened when the Quebec ministry of education came out with a new course to teach ethics and world religions. From its secular perspective, this course teaches that all religion can be reduced to a series of cultural habits. This created a problem for Loyola. Its faculty and staff believed that the course was quite disrespectful of what people in other religions actually believe, and of their own Catholic faith as well. How could they be true to their faith if they were required to teach that it is just a series of cultural habits, and no more true than any other? Students in the class were even asked to make up their own religions. The ministry of education denied Loyola permission to teach an equivalent course from their own perspective. The issue here was not just freedom of religion for individual students at Loyola, but the freedom of this religious institution to pass on the Catholic faith it represented. Loyola had to take their case on a costly journ ey all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada before they finally regained the right to teach their own faith in their own school.
More recently, an all-party committee of the Parliament of Canada made a recommendation that challenged the freedom of faith-based health care facilities. It would have required all health facilities in Canada to help people who want to end their own lives. Now, Canadians have sincere differences of opinion with one another on this matter. What is most urgently needed, though, is better delivery of good palliative care. For the last three years, I have regularly attended the province-wide conference for people who deliver palliative care. It has been astounding to learn that only 30% of Canadians have access to good palliative care. Most doctors and nurses receive insufficient training in helping people who are dying. All the emphasis is on improving a person’s health and, thankfully, most of the time that is the right thing to do. But restorative care is not good for people who clearly are dying. Too often they are told to eat more, when that only makes them feel more miserable. Similarly, they often continue to be given treatments that don’t help anymore. What they really need is help that will make them comfortable. I am grateful that for the past several years the administration and staff of Holland Christian Homes in the Manors and in the Towers have been aware of these things.
They have been faithfully reviewing past practices and changing them for the better. This is an ongoing process.
Still, Canadians honestly disagree with each other about whether doctors should help people to hasten their deaths, and this requires respectful conversation. It is one thing if some people request this service, it is quite another to compel others to provide it when that is against their conscience. Most Canadian doctors have said they would never agree to do it. Most Christians believe that God forbids us to go down that road, though it is not unforgiveable.
People of many other religions also believe it is wrong. Recognizing this, the parliamentary committee said that an individual doctor’s freedom of conscience and religion should be respected, as required by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But they were not willing to grant this same freedom to faith-based health care institutions. If this committee of Parliament had its way then even institutions like St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, and our own Grace and Faith Manors, would be required to provide this service. When groups like the Roman Catholic Church, the Salvation Army, and the Christian Reformed Church asked this committee about the religious freedoms of faith-based organizations, one of our senators answered: “Bricks and mortar don’t have a conscience.” That is true, of course, but bricks and mortar by themselves do not provide medical care either.
Thankfully, the recommendations of the parliamentary committee did not find favor with our federal Minister of Health. The legislation now proposed, controversial as it is, will make it possible for people in some situations to get help to end their lives more quickly, but it says nothing about requiring any institution to provide the service. Still, the conversation isn’t over.
God calls us to live out our faith serving others. Religious freedom therefore, cannot be limited to the freedom to go to religious services, or to think private religious thoughts. It must include the freedom to live our lives in accordance with our faith. Often that will mean establishing organizations through which we carry out this work. Let’s be faithful to that calling. Let’s also continue to be in prayer for this wonderful country and its freedoms.
When I started this I recognized that two months of study would not make me an expert on any aspect of Canadian law, but I wanted to know more than what could be gained by reading an article or two. I am grateful to Heritage Fellowship Church for its support of my effort, to the Rev. Heiman Praamsma who was able to take on many of my other responsibilities, and to a number of busy people who gave me their time for personal interviews.
Pastor H. Bruinsma