Church leaders are calling on the faithful to pray — and call their MPs — about new rules for the federal government’s Canada Summer Jobs program.
The program, which provides wage subsidies to employers to create jobs for students, now requires applicants to check a box affirming that both the jobs and the organization’s “core mandate” respect human rights in Canada, including the values underlying the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — and specifically, reproductive rights.
According to the government’s guide for applicants, “the government recognizes that women’s rights are human rights. This includes sexual and reproductive rights — and the right to access safe and legal abortions.”
Applications must include the attestation to be considered complete and eligible for assessment.
That’s left churches who teach adherents that abortion is wrong in a quandary.
‘Our faith should benefit our community’
“We couldn’t hold our integrity and check off the box about the reproductive rights,” said Jeff Hillier, lead pastor at Community Pentecostal Church in Orléans.
For summer 2016, the last year for which the federal government has provided statistics, the church received approximately $19,544 to create five jobs.
While the church’s teachings oppose abortion, “abortion has nothing to do with why I’m hiring students,” Hillier said.
The summer students run programs including an arts camp, a children’s Bible school program that also attracts non-Christians, and a free barbecue and an annual block party for the Avalon area that’s attended by more than 1,500 people, he said.
“Everybody understands that a church’s charitable element is an expression of religion, but the truth is that our church is not just here for religious purposes,” Hillier said.
“We believe that our faith should benefit our community.”
Hillier said he was “very shocked” by the new program rules, which put him in mind of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s requirement for Liberal MPs to vote pro-choice.
“The fact that monies would be withheld from us based upon not agreeing with our prime minister’s position to me is appalling,” Hillier said.
“I’m quite concerned about the freedom of religion and where this will lead us.”
Faith groups vow to fight
Religious beliefs do not disqualify applicants from funding, a spokesperson for Patty Hajdu, the federal minister for Employment, Workforce Development and Labour, told CBC in a statement.
“There is a difference between an applicant’s beliefs and an applicant’s core mandate for the job funding,” reads the statement.
“The fact that an organization is affiliated with a religion (which may hold a range of views, beliefs or values) does not itself constitute ineligibility for this program.”
Still, faith groups are vowing to fight the requirement. The Canadian Council of Christian Charities has outlined a three-part strategy for churches to “pray, express concern, contact MPs.”
The council is also advising churches to continue to apply for the program, but to do so using a paper form, where they can check the required box but also add comments in the margin to clarify their views and to express concerns with the government’s wording.
Anti-abortion groups previously received funding
Organizations with a core mandate to oppose abortion have been recipients of Canada Summer Jobs funding.
In Ontario alone, four chapters of the Campaign Life Coalition, organizers of the annual National March For Life on Parliament Hill, received a total of $32,870 to create 11 jobs in summer 2016.
The government is right to screen out such groups, according to Catherine Macnab, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Ottawa — a pro-choice organization which has also received funding for summer jobs through the program.
“People know about the graphic imagery that gets circulated,” Macnab said.
“And getting students involved in putting out information that’s both not true and really traumatizing to children, and working against the rights of people to get health care … is not the intent of the Summer Jobs program.”
But asked whether churches whose teachings oppose abortion should be ineligible for program funding, Macnab’s response was an unequivocal “no.”
“Churches do fantastic work,” Macnab said. “For sure, there’s no issue around churches getting the funding…we can’t use the Canada (Summer) Jobs Funding to try to control what people think.”