The intersection of rights

Ten years ago Dr. Janice Stein, one of Canada’s big thinkers, wrote that Canada was facing a “hinge moment.” We need, she said, to work out how religious freedom, equality rights and multiculturalism would work together. Each is recognized in the highly valued Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but they often come into tensions in practice (Uneasy Partners, 1-22). Pressure on the hinge is now coming from many sides. What holds it together?  

Stein includes one example from her own life: she promotes full equality for women, but accepts that tax credits are given to churches such as orthodox Jewish synagogues which oppose it. Human rights laws protect different sexual orientations, but allow exemptions for religious bodies opposed to recognizing them. Now we are working through the challenge of fitting together the right of faith-based health providers to refuse medical assistance in dying and the right of their eligible patients to access it. Screening immigrants for Canadian values drew strong critique, but what constitutes equitable treatment for racial minorities and respect for cultural diversity remains contentious. The current hot potato is criteria for a youth summer employment program that includes respect for reproductive rights. It brings into tension religious freedom and women’s rights, as Stein predicted. Canada’s pluralistic and open society facilitates a high level of accommodation, but tensions can explode in damaging ways.  

Some Christians resolve the tension by arguing that religious freedom trumps all other rights. That is not the position in law and I don’t think it is biblical either. Basic tenants in human rights are universality – all people have equal rights – and indivisibility and interdependence – all areas of rights are interrelated. I work at the intersection of rights. I defend religious freedom but also defend the rights of children against religion-based practices that limit their right to develop their full potential, such as forced early marriage, and cultural practices that harm their health, such as female genital cutting. The hinge, for me, is pinned together by respect for the dignity and evolving agency of every child, created and loved by God and equally called to develop his or her full potential.  


Agency – the capacity and right to make moral decisions – warrants more attention by Christians. It focuses attention on who should make which decisions. I share concerns about autonomy and individualism that are quickly raised by some Christians, and I recognize that rights and responsibilities go together. We need to think more about multiple levels of agency and work through how the agency of persons and the agency of institutions like churches and service-providers fit together.  

The #MeToo campaign is basically about strengthening the agency of women and holding men more accountable for the exercise of their agency in matters of sexuality. That is positive. There is something to be learned from the fact that states who focus on fulfilling the social and economic rights of women, giving them more agency, have lower abortion rates than states that use punitive measures like restricted access to reproductive health services. In the field of children’s rights, the central concept of respect for the “evolving capacity” of young people helps to work through issues of agency.

Speaking of agency, why are Members of Parliament making decisions about who gets summer employment grants in their ridings? This is a serious role reversal. MPs should set policy and civil servants administer programs, not the other way around. The evidence shows that MPs used this program to channel public money to groups that align with their political views. For young people then, options for a job are shaped by the political leanings of their current MP. That is an infringement of rights of concern to everyone who values a rights-respecting society.

Christians and human rights

I continue to believe that Christians have a significant contribution to make for the realization of a rights-respecting society. I question the wisdom of an aggressive, narrow defense of religious freedom. Christians with a broader approach take all rights seriously and work to put in place policies and mechanisms that address questions of agency and carefully consider all aspects, from the perspective of the persons affected by public policies. That is more likely to lead to sturdy hinges for a respectful and peaceful society.   


  • Kathy Vandergrift

    Kathy Vandergrift, a public policy analyst, brings experience in government, social justice work and a Master’s Degree in Public Ethics to her reflections.

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