Canadian Supreme Court Ruling Has Implications for Christian Witness

The Story: On Wednesday, Canada’s Supreme Court upheld a ban on “hate speech” contested by a Christian activist, ruling that the country’s hate speech ban “is a reasonable limit on freedom of religion and is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”

The Background: William Whatcott, a former homosexual turned Christian activist, published and distributed flyers in 2001 and 2002 which which contained various harsh statements about homosexuals and pedophiles. A complaint was filed with Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission alleging Whatcott was promoting hatred against individuals based on their sexual orientation. The Human Rights Tribunal held the publications contravened a section of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code on the basis that Whatcott’s views exposed persons to hatred and ridicule on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Whatcott argued that he was entitled to make the statements based on his constitutional protected right to freedom of expression and freedom of religion and that the section of the Human Rights Code was unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court of Canada, however, ruled that the sections of the Human Rights Code that prohibited hatred against persons based on a prohibited ground of discrimination was constitutional and that Whatcott’s speech was not protected on the basis of freedom of expression or freedom of religion.

Why It Matters: The ruling has potentially broad implications for the Christian witness in Canada. For instance, the court ruled that making claims which could be construed as “detesting or vilifying” homosexual behavior is enough to classify speech as “hate speech”:

Courts have recognized a strong connection between sexual orientation and sexual conduct and where the conduct targeted by speech is a crucial aspect of the identity of a vulnerable group, attacks on this conduct stand as proxy for attacks on the group itself. If expression targeting certain sexual behaviour is framed in such a way as to expose persons of an identifiable sexual orientation to what is objectively viewed as detestation and vilification, it cannot be said that such speech only targets the behaviour. It quite clearly targets the vulnerable group.

The ruling also states that suppression of “hate speech”—such as claiming that homosexual behavior is immoral—is so important that it justifies infringing on religious freedom and provides a basis for a “reasonable limit on freedom of religion and is demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” The court also explained that truth was no defense since “Truthful statements can be presented in a manner that would meet the definition of hate speech, and not all truthful statements must be free from restriction.”

This standard is then used to justify a draconian standard of censorship:

If, despite the context of the entire publication, even one phrase or sentence is found to bring the publication, as a whole, in contravention of the Code, this precludes its publication in its current form.

The court used the preceding standard to scrutinize the flyers and even considered whether Walcott’s quotation of Matthew 18:6 can be characterized as “hate speech.” The court determined that it was not and added:

While use of the Bible as a credible authority for a hateful proposition has been considered a hallmark of hatred, it would only be unusual circumstances and context that could transform a simple reading or publication of a religion’s holy text into what could objectively be viewed as hate speech.

The Court doesn’t seem to be too familiar with the “holy text” of Judaism and Christianity since by their own standard the presence of Leviticus 18:22 (“Do not have sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman; that is detestable.”) would warrant classifying the Bible as a hate speech document. The court clearly states that,

If expression targeting certain sexual behaviour is framed in such a way as to expose persons of an identifiable sexual orientation to what is objectively viewed as detestation and vilification, it cannot be said that such speech only targets the behaviour. It quite clearly targets the vulnerable group. [emphasis added]

If criticism of homosexual behavior is construed as criticism of homosexuals then a “simple reading” of the Lev. 18 and context clearly shows that the passage “could objectively be viewed as hate speech.” While Canada’s Supreme Court justices may not understand what is in the “holy text” used by Christians, homosexual rights activists certainly do—and they will expect the legal system to consistently apply the logic of the Court’s ruling.

Equally troubling is that Christian ministers who condemn homosexual behavior can be subject to hate crime prosecution. Canada’s Supreme Court has determined that speaking out against destructive homosexual behaviors could be construed as vilification of homosexuals and therefore is prohibited in most circumstances. This is a radical standard that could severely hamper Christian witness.

Although Jesus said “the truth will set you free,” in Canada speaking the same truths proclaimed in God’s Word could potentially land Christians in jail.

  • Ian Hugh Clary

    Thank you for bringing this to readers’ attention, this is a very serious situation for us Canadians.

  • Ian Hugh Clary

    Sorry to post again, but I thought your readers might be interested in seeing the response of secular media to this ruling. Andrew Coyne, one of Canada’s most well-known and respected journalists wrote a piece expressing horror with the ruling: See also the Globe and Mail’s response: They are embarrassed by it.
    A libertarian website spells out the logic of the ruling–basically, if there is the potential for someone’s speech to bring about harm to another, it can be considered “hate speech.”
    Canadian theologian John Stackhouse also shared his negative thoughts about the ruling:

  • Wesley

    While i agree with the warnings and shudder at the thought of the bible being classified as hate speech, the case with this guy from Sask. has to be considered in context. AS i understand it, he was not preaching this from a pulpit or even expressing his views when asked, but distributing flyers to everyone regardless of whether they knew what they were receiving or not. In my mind, that is inviting this kind of scrutiny and litigation b/c the word of God then becomes a bat that you swing at unsuspecting people. I agree, the implications are serious but we need to consider how these truths of Scripture were being used before circling the wagons.

    • Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

      Wesley, I’m with you here. The fellow at the centre of this issue may have been extremely obnoxious.

      Nevertheless, the implications of this outcome are of great concern. The more winsome of us will never be the first to have our religious freedoms undermined. The test cases are always going to be with the more extreme voices.

      I think traditional Christians should continue on as we have been. Winsomely, compassionately, and persuasively speaking and living out the truth. Nobody is knocking down our doors yet.

      • Melody

        Westboro is worse but if you outlaw them then it will be applied to us. Opinions do not harm people. If they did then Christians would be dropping like flies. People need to quit being such big babies when it comes to words.

  • Tony

    Hi Ian. The sign of a real Canadian is when they start their post with “Sorry.” Thanks for those posts. Here’s one from Rex Murphy: His commentary is always interesting and colourful. I’m not a fan of how Whatcott does things, but removing his right to do them that way is a problem that even some in secular society recognize.

    I’m struck by how often this is coming up in Canada and in the US in the last year or two. Tolerance is usually a half-way house between two positions and not a permanent residence. It appears that many feel that the time in the half-way house of tolerating homosexuality has ended, and they are aggressively attempting to move to the new residence where acceptance and affirmation of homosexuality is the only permitted position.

    • Hayden Norris

      Reading the “Intolerance of Tolerance” by DA Carson is very informative in this and other situations

    • Ian Hugh Clary

      Hi Tony,
      We’re so polite it’ll make your teeth rot. :)
      I’m not one to quote Noam Chomsky, but he is dead on here: “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
      The methods espoused by Whatcott are beside the point, the Supreme Court’s ruling actually speaks about the *potential* to cause harm, irregardless of the truthfulness of a statement. So if a Canadian were to utter something demonstrably true, but another group is *potentially* harmed—meaning that physical harm has not yet taken place—then we have hate speech. This is where the trouble lies. The logic of this is scary. Read that piece by The Volunteer that I linked to, it spells it out clearly. Everyone, including gay rights groups, should be up in arms about this.

      • Zack Skrip

        Check out some Mark Steyn archives. This is exactly (as in, “to the T”) what is going on in Europe right now. The biggest victims have been those who have spoken out against Islam. The judges never ask the person to proves their comments, truth isn’t even on the table, it’s just whether or not some Muslims were offended. Give it a few years, and this is how it will be applied here.

  • Robert

    Joe, is there anywhere we can view copies of the flyers Mr. Whatcott was distributing?

    • Jeff

      This is a legitimate point: I believe Whatcott operates beyond a fundamentalist condemnation of homosexuality, broadly painting gay people as perverted, lustful and dangerous people. A snippet of his literature (see the picture with signs) here:

      Still, some troubling things out of this ruling, but nearly to the extent I believe this dissapointing commentary from the Gospel Coalition seems to present.

      • JohnM

        Are the flyers true in their specific charges – I don’t know
        Do the flyers paint homosexuals as lustful – no doubt homosexuals are, arguably no more so than anyone else
        Do the flyers paint homosexuals as dangerous – I don’t see where they do
        Do the flyers paint homosexuals as perveted – I suppose, but your point would be…?

        • JohnM

          Make that the signs the man is carrying and I’ll continue to agree with myself on the last post. If we’re talking about the flyers, which I’ve now seen, I can see the portrayed as dangerous part. The rest of what I said stands.

          • Melody

            Does he call for them to be killed or otherwise physically harmed?

      • Katie

        I think we are missing an important point here. This young man had actual experience with the homosexual lifestyle. He became a Christian and then left that lifestyle. Perhaps in his experience, they were lustful and dangerous. Perhaps he saw much EVIDENCE of perversion. After all, he LIVED it. He is only speaking out about something that he believes to be true based on his personal experience. Why is it hate speech to warn people about something that you believe is a danger, when that belief has personal experience to back it up?

    • Joe Carter

      I haven’t been able to find the flyers, but the court ruling includes the language that was deemed offensive:

    • Robert

      I found a copy of the flyers that were evidence in the court case:

      • mel

        Seems to me that he was trying to warn people about something that he had been victimized by. People have a sad romanticized illusion about the homosexual life style.

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  • http://www, Laurie Morris

    What has been neglected in this article are some of the limitations imposed by the court on the Humnan Rights Commission of Saskatechewan and by application accross the country. The court made clear that their language was too broad and could not apply – that part was a minor victory.

    • Joe Carter

      I agree that it was a “minor victory.” Essentially, the court ruled that the words “ridicule and belittle” had to be removed. From the ruling:

      “Similarly, the prohibition does not preclude hate speech against an individual on the basis of his or her uniquely personal characteristics, but only on the basis of characteristics that are shared by others and have been legislatively recognized as a prohibited ground of discrimination. However, expression that “ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of” does not rise to the level of ardent and extreme feelings constituting hatred required to uphold the constitutionality of a prohibition of expression in human rights legislation.”

      In other words, saying “John has detestable body odor” is not hate speech, while saying “John engages in detestable sexual behavior” could be.

      • rcjr

        What though about other people with body odor? It seems to me that anything that can be mocked can be mocked against a class of people having the mockable thing. The truly frightening thing in the language is “legislatively recognized as a prohibited ground of discrimination.” Which being translated is, “Do not speak ill of those in power, or their friends.” Finally, I am frankly stunned that there would even be discussion of how far this man went, where he spoke what. It’s time for all Christians to recognize that Canada is a state that denies our God given right to freedom of expression. And that is a truly wicked thing. Tut tutting about what was expressed is evidence that even Christians are co-opted.

  • JVC

    So drop the gay topic and just focus on the gospel in Canada. They certainly need the gospel message up there.

    Just put homosexuality along with head-coverings and other biblical topics routinely ignored by evangelical Christians…

    • Stan McCullars

      Can’t really drop the topic since the gospel message includes the necessity of repentance from sin and homosexuality is sin.

  • Mark Zellner

    I’ve though for years that the issue of homosexuality would be the single issue that drives the American church into the underground. Once it becomes hate speech, we become a hate group, and are as marginalized and ostracized by society as the KKK or terrorist extremists. Churches will have to take their stand one way or the other.

    • Katie

      You are right. It will come to pass. It will not end with the homosexuality issue. I believe that one day it will be “hate speech” to say that Jesus is the Only Way to eternal life.(especially as Muslims become more active in our government, that will be an insult to Mohammed) Everyone who is not a Christian will be offended and claim discrimination and demand that Christians be silenced. Can’t happen? Look at the whole tolerence issue and how much attitudes have changed just in the last 10-15 years.

  • Stan McCullars

    It would seem that some “human rights” are more equal than others.

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  • Brandon

    On a practical level the response should be to turn this around and pursue all opportunities to prosecute hate against Christians. If anyone says anything negative then claim ‘hate’ and go to court. Outside of Westboro it is not hard to see the vast majority of hate and bigotry is coming from the LGBT side these days, in Canada this shouldn’t be difficult based on the language in the ruling.

    Much like the ridiculous US ruling that sponsored college clubs/groups can’t determine their own leadership qualifications, on a practical level the response isn’t to despair but for Christians to join all LGBT (and similar) groups and pursue leadership positions, then sue when they are turned down.

    This approach at least forces the issue and makes transparent the virtues of true freedom of speech and the right free association.

    • Melody

      There is no biblical basis for fighting for rights. Unless you know of something I’m not aware. It is more important that people be aware that this is occurring and it is coming this way.

      We are called to proclaim the gospel to the lost and love our enemies and neighbors. Isn’t fighting for rights a way around dying for the gospel?

      • Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

        “There is no biblical basis for fighting for rights.”

        Melody, there are Biblical examples. Paul exercised his right to not be unjustly treated as a Roman citizen (Acts 22:22-29). He also appealed to Caesar to have his case heard at a higher level (Acts 25:11).

        We are indeed called to suffer and possibly even die for the Gospel. But that does not proscribe seeking to ensure our voices can be heard. Asserting our rights can be a way of helping the Gospel to continue to be heard. Paul himself was not ashamed of doing this.

        As a Canadian, I am not quite ready to have my ability to proclaim hindered. Believe me, there is a type of suffering in agitating for that in my country.

        Also, as a Christian who endeavours to love my neighbour, this is an important issue for other persons as well. Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, and other groups as well could be unreasonably limited in their freedoms. It is also a ‘do unto others’ moment.

        • Melody

          To PROCLAIM the gospel to more people. He didn’t do it for himself or because he wanted Christianity to be a privileged class. Paul took a beating and was thrown in jail when he could have asserted his rights in Acts 16:21-37.

          Asserting rights that are lawfully there while proclaiming the gospel is quite different than taking up a political fight against a group without the intention of showing love but instead intending to “fight fire with fire”.

          I really can’t buy the idea of doing it so that Muslims can have more rights. I’m sorry but that is too difficult.

          • Steve, Winnipeg, Canada

            “He didn’t do it for himself or because he wanted Christianity to be a privileged class.”

            Okay, I think I’m with you there, perhaps contra Brandon above. We shouldn’t be unnecessarily aggressive. We shouldn’t fight fire with fire, as you say. Agreed!

            “I really can’t buy the idea of doing it so that Muslims can have more rights.”

            Don’t agree? So be it. But at least in my country, if some don’t have religious freedoms, nobody does.

            • Melody

              Okay I buy it a little more than I did before. A little jaded by those that call themselves Christian in the US but put the power of politics on equal footing with the Holy Spirit. That and those that can’t comprehend free speech especially means those that you don’t want to hear. Both parties members are guilty if that here.

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  • Lori

    I would certainly hope that nobody considers the flyers this man was passing out as example of a “Christian witness.” God help us if we think it is.

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  • Alan Kurschner

    Joe, thanks for your comments. The court criminalizing Christianity may be God’s way of testing our faithfulness to the bold proclamation of the gospel.

    Will we capitulate to political correctness or will we persist in taking up the cross by loving homosexuals in proclaiming to them freedom from their sin?

    • Melody

      Exactly! Don’t forsake the truth. It will look one of three ways. Those that are truly believers of the gospel will declare it regardless of the penalty or those that will change the gospel to be something that will offend no one and save an equal number to that. And lastly those that claim to believe the truth will pick up guns instead of their bibles, say a prayer or utter the gospel even once.

  • Mark Zellner

    I see your sentiment Lori, but I’d be interested in knowing what and how the fliers were precisely worded. Remember the media has a way of turning a great many Christian activities into propagandized hate. They may have simply said “Jesus delivered me from a lifestyle of homosexuality, and there’s hope for you too!” Or something similar. Even a message of hope can be seen as a message of hate by the world.

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  • Grant Alford

    Two observations:
    1. Jesus did NOT say the truth will set you free. He said “If you are my disciple you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” For the truth to set you free it has to be the truth you learn by being a disciple. Some of that truth is as given in Matthew 5 where we are commanded to love our enemies, and to show unconditional love to the “just and the unjust” even as the Father has shown that kind of love, to us. So we are to be “mature” even as our Father in heaven is “mature”. (vs. 48)
    2. When Leviticus or any of the Bible passages speak concerning what is abominable it is addressing itself to those who have by choice said they were the people of God and ascribing to his opinion. Therefore anyone using the Word must by the very nature of the book say, “This or that practice is something I cannot do and be pleasing to the King whom I claim to follow.” Note the complete list of sins that Romans 1 catalogues, and notice that going immediately into chapter 2 THE BELIEVERS are told not to judge… because they do the same things.
    Therefore a preacher may address his congregation and tell those present who are members of that assembly that they may or may not do particular things (according to the church constitution) and if they want to bring church discipline on someone who bought a lottery ticket, or gossiped or whatever, that is not hate speech or suppression of religious freedom. To say that a holy text says something to its adherents is not hate speech. BUT to say that the Bible says something about a lifestyle and then to suggest that a congregant should go out and condemn or mistreat, or show discrimination to the one outside the fellowship because they are deemed “guilty” could be considered hate speech, or stirring up hateful action.
    The Bible and its commandments are intended for those for whom the first words have meaning and for whom the first 4 commandments could apply. Without Trust it is impossible to please God, for anyone who would come to him (or be concerned whether or not a particular moral precept applies to them) MUST believe that God is, and that he hears or rewards those who come to him.
    For a Mason to tell me what a Mason believes to be the right code of conduct within a Masonic Hall or meeting, is meaningless, and I don’t think he would bother his head about it. BUT if he should tell others that because I did not go through a particular ritual or I did something contrary to his standard that therefore I was inferior and should be dealt with, that would be hate speech. And a Christian trying to tell a homosexual that his lifestyle is not acceptable to the Christian, or telling other Christians that the homosexual should be shunned or treated unkindly, would be the same as anyone of any differing “worldview” judging me or mistreating me because I am not of their religious persuasion.

    Remember that every “right” that you think YOU should have in the name of “freedom of religion” you must expect that others with their “freedom of religion” has also. Do YOU want the Muslims to insist that your women wear a burda to be modest and that anything less means you should not be served or seen on the street? Illegal acts that are criminal acts are open to judgement and prescribed punishment. Laws are put in place according to “community standards”. Homosexuality and gossip (both condemned for believers in Scripture) are not illegal acts. Don’t judge one and not the other, nor the practitioners of either.

    • Melody

      Does a Christian have an obligation to protect children? Look at the flier. It is calling attention to the sex ads, specifically the ones that are soliciting for boy relationships.
      Yes gossip is a sin. Something that Paul rebuked for but sexual immorality he said to remove the person from them so that they would be pushed to repent and be returned.
      It has gone beyond whether we are being loving or not. Of course we are to be loving. But we cannot lie while doing it. That has nothing to do with judging.

  • Wendy Bradford

    Sooo.. in other words..”Christians have lost their “Freedom of Speech”!!
    and so is loving one another!!

  • Ron Van Brenk


    As you say, those Supremes may claim ignorance about Lev. 18:22…
    but how could they claim ignorance of 1 Cor. 6:9? It was listed in the evidence presented to them… but they ignored it.

    And that biblical evidence does not make allusion to “mere behavior” either. It directly implicates a ‘people group’ rather than a ‘practice’. IF it wanted to implicate a mere practice this text would have said “sodomy” rather than “sodomites”. Those judges are duplicitous.

    And have you ever heard such a bizarre interpretation of Matt. 18:22 by semi-literate people? Ignorance is no excuse for those judges.

    • Ron Van Brenk

      Sorry (Yes, I’m Canadian),

      I meant to write Matt. 18:6. A little accidental conflation there with the previous text.

      BTW, am scheduled to be teaching my students from Matt. 23 soon.

      Will be showing that “teachers of the law” are “hypocrites”, “blind guides”, “snakes” and “vipers”. Will likely be using such “overly emotive language” condemned by the Supreme’s in their recent decision. Will likely be using this decision as proof that this ‘people group’ are hypocrites.


  • zilch

    As an atheist and a liberal as far as homosexuality is concerned, you may be surprised to hear that I also think legislating against this is a bad idea. While the borders of what may be reasonably defended as free speech are obviously impossible to define unambiguously, I think it’s safer and better to rather err on the side of freedom than to attempt to outlaw people saying what they believe, no matter how much you may disagree with it.

    • Tom Schultz

      Legislating against speech of any kind seems a bad idea to me too. So much of history shows that the most powerful group defines proper speech and seeks to suppress any opposition. They do not want logic and truth to prevail…witness the indication that quoting Scripture can be hate speech…but rather for their idea to conquer!

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