21 Nov 2017 Christians: Your Voice Can Make a Difference in the Political Landscape
On the program this week, a comprehensive look at two recent ARPA lobbying efforts. One on Bill 24 in Alberta, the other on a federal bill involving criminal code protections for religious worship. We look at what works, what doesn’t, and how we measure and define success.
Bill 24, the “Act to Protect Gay Straight Alliances” in Alberta, passed third reading in the legislature last week. This is the Bill that would, among other things, make it illegal for schools to inform parents if their children had joined a so-called “Gay Straight Alliance” – a school club ostensibly set up to support gay students or those struggling with gender identity issues.
Just hours before the final vote, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Reforms in Calgary announced that if the government was serious about passing the bill, it should know that there would be a court challenge coming on this; a challenge based on things like the Charter right to Freedom of Religion and the rights of parents to know what’s going on in their children’s lives and to dictate the kind of education those children are getting.
The Justice Centre’s John Carpay says it’ll take a while to put the lawsuit together, but they wanted to put the government on notice. “It does take considerable… time to properly put together the affidavits that people are going to swear to. But as soon as the court papers are filed in early 2018, we will apply for an interim injunction until there’s a full hearing on the merits (of the case.)”
That means, Carpay says, that independent schools and parents in Alberta are going to get a reprieve from the effects of the bill. He says schools won’t have to comply with legislation that is not constitutional. “For example, for schools to rewrite their policies and put in… things that are contrary to their own faith tradition; schools don’t have to do that.” He says the suit was filed “to encourage parents and schools not to comply with legislation that violates fundamental Charter freedoms.”
Carpay also says this lawsuit is a last resort, and that people should not be looking to “our knight- in-shining-armour-lawyer that’s going to strike it down.” He says it’s ok to do that as a “Plan “B”, but the Plan “A” has to be ongoing citizen engagement. He says that’s how laws like Bill 24 get passed: “People who understand and support a free society have largely withdrawn from democratic process, so they’ve left the door wide open for people to bring in bad laws.”
ARPA did a lot of citizen engagement on Bill 24. Grassroots Manager Colin Postma says with the quick turn-around on the bill – less than 3 weeks from its first introduction to final passage – a lot of work had to get done very quickly. “We had a conference call the day after the bill was introduced, and put a bit of a plan together. We ran a significant number of Facebook and Social Media ads that went out and reached a couple of hundred thousand people. We got together a significant amount of money and put that towards radio ads; we had 400 radio ads that were put out all across Alberta.” While he admits there’s “some discussion” going on about how effective the campaign was (because ultimately the bill did pass), the campaign showed MLA’s in Edmonton that this is an issue that people are concerned about. He says in the end, that message was sent “pretty clearly.”
The primary way delivery system for that message was through the “EasyMail” system, which generated almost 32-hundred emails on the bill. The vast majority of those emails were sent over the Remembrance Day weekend, which was a long weekend in Alberta. The number also set a record for the greatest number of emails ever sent through that program in the shortest amount of time.
Bill 24 passed by a count of 42 in favour, and 23 opposed. (You can see a tally of the vote count here). The 42 who were in favour included 38 NDP members, along with some independents and others. But 16 NDP members, comprising almost a third of the governing NDP caucus, didn’t show up for the vote. ARPA Executive Director Mark Penninga says it’s clear the EasyMails had an impact. “We don’t know if (they) had a direct impact on whether NDP MLA’s actually showed up for the vote, but these EasyMail letters made democracy happen in a very timely (and) very genuine way.”
Penninga adds, though, that it would be a stretch to call the campaign on Bill 24 a template for future lobbying efforts. He says it wouldn’t be wise to rely exclusively on technology like EasyMail, or even on phone calls. “The reason why I don’t want to over-emphasize the value of things like EasyMail is because, as we explained in our fall tour this year, there is no replacement for genuine relationships.” However, he says, there are instances where there’s not enough time for people to form a relationship, and in those cases, politicians need to know that the public has concerns about something, and that message needs to be delivered quickly. He says tools like EasyMail accomplish that. As to telephone calls, he says the Bill 24 campaign illustrated that government officials sometimes don’t want to hear negative feedback. “We heard of a lot of Albertans trying to get through to the Education Minister on the phone, and the Minister’s office wasn’t taking the calls. And they also allowed their answering machine to fill up and left it there so people couldn’t get their message through.”
Penninga admits that in the past, it’s sometimes been a challenge to motivate grassroots supporters to get involved in campaigns like this one, but he’s confident that people are starting to understand how it works. “There’s no doubt that when we make it known to our grassroots that something has to happen (quickly), there’s a lot of people who will follow through on that,” and the appetite for this kind of activism is growing. “In the past, the grassroots didn’t have a whole lot of confidence when it came to their ability to make a difference. It’s not that way anymore. We are increasingly seeing that we can have quite an impact, if we do speak up.”
As to measuring success, Penninga says people are starting to understand that it’s not always the outcome of a particular vote that determines whether a campaign had the desired effect. “We knew that Bill 24 would pass,” he says. That was “a given, given the NDP majority. But that’s not all there is to it. To see the UCP MLA’s standing up and opposing this (was big, because it was the first time in years that some of these MLA’s have been willing to take any kind of public stand on social issues.” He says the campaign showed that something very significant had changed, and he’s “very encouraged” at how quickly Albertans and the ARPA grassroots got mobilized for the campaign.
ARPA was also involved in another EasyMail campaign earlier in November. That one involved federal politics.
Parliament’s Justice and Human Rights Committee held hearings on Bill C-51. That bill originally included a clause which would have repealed Section 176 of the Criminal Code; a section that expressly protects religious worship services, and those who conduct them, from assault, interference, or harassment..
For an explanation of the background to this, Lighthouse News spoke with ARPA’s Director of Law and Policy, André Schutten.
LN: First of all, can you give us a little bit of history on this whole Bill? I mean, the Bill was sort of an omnibus thing that was going to make a whole bunch of changes to the Criminal Code; Section 176 was just part of that. What’s the background here?
AS: The Liberal government made a commitment to clean up the Criminal Code, and they’re doing that through a series of different bills, where they’re taking out provisions that have been struck down as unconstitutional, or they’re removing ones that are obsolete (and) haven’t been used in decades. And then also removing sections that they believe are redundant. They’re doing this through a number of different bills including Bill C-51, and buried in the middle of C051 is Clause 14, which purports to – or was going to – remove Section 176 of the Criminal Code, which makes it a crime to “disrupt” a religious worship service or to stop or hinder a religious official from going to that service.
LN: And the expectation – I mean, you appeared before the Committee – and the general feeling at that point I think was that this was pretty much a done deal. Was that the impression you got when you appeared there?
AS: When I appeared, it was clear that the Conservative members on the Committee – there’s 3 of them – that they were opposed to this change. The NDP member – there’s only 1 – he seemed to be waffling; he wasn’t really sure. He asked genuine questions and wanted to know was our side of the debate? How did we reason to the conclusion that we had? And then the Liberals – the ones who were asking questions anyway – they made it pretty clear that they were totally ok with removing Section 176. They were convinced that it’s a redundant provision. They said: “Look, if you’re causing a disturbance, if you’re causing mischief, if you’re interfering with somebody’s travel or anything like that, that can all be covered by other sections of the Code like assault, or causing a disturbance. So what’s the big deal?”
Our presentation certainly made it emphatic that “no, no, this is a big deal because disturbing a religious worship service is different in kind than disturbing a speech at a University or a protest a public park or shouting and screaming during a hockey game.” Like, those are different things – different “in kind” – from religious worship services.
And the example I used – and I hope it was effective – the example I used at the Committee was (that) none of us would agree – none of us would say – that we should get rid of sections in the Criminal Code that prohibit sexual assaults. An argument, hypothetically, could be made: “Well, we have the prohibitions against assault, and sexual assault is just type of assault, therefore we don’t need these special protections against sexual assault because.. assault is a broad concept and we can certainly trust judges and prosecutors and police to make sure that if somebody sexually assaulted someone that they property get charged under the assault provision.”
The answer that is of course, sexual assault is different in kind from regular, normal assault. Sexual assault is different than if I, you know, punched somebody on the street. And because it’s different in kind, and because it’s so heinous, it needs a special denunciation – a special protection – in the Criminal Code. And the same thing in an analogous way can be said about Section 176. Yes, there are certain provisions in the Code that could cover similar types of things, but we need special denunciation for disturbances of religious services… Without Section 176, it sends a signal to society that says a worship service is nothing special; it’s no different than a University lecture, it’s no different than a speech on a political campaign, it’s no different than a protest in a park. And we say that’s not true.
LN: So the Committee changed its mind. To what to you attribute the turnaround on this thing?
AS: So during the debate on “clause-by-clause” it’s called; so this is at the end of a Committee hearing on a bill, they’ve studied the bill, they’ve had all kinds of witnesses present on it, then they go into what’s called “clause-by-clause” and they just go through every clause of the bill and they vote: “Do we keep this clause, do we amend this clause, or do we cut this clause?” And when they came to Clause 14 – and that’s the one that we’re talking about here – we had the NDP member, we had Conservative members mention that they’ve been hearing about Section 176 and its importance for months now, and that there’s been a trickle – I’m quoting the NDP member, he said – “I’ve heard a trickle of correspondence on this, but it’s turned into a veritable avalanche of communications, emails and letters over the past weekend”, he said. And Mr. Nicholson, who’s the Conservative critic on that Committee, he said that he received over the past weekend, over 900 pieces of communication to keep Section 176.
And I think that, by the grace of God, ARPA can say that it was our ground game that contributed in a big way to this. When we checked our EasyMail system – we had put out a call to action the Friday before the weekend that these MP’s are referencing – and on that call to action we just asked people “Please send an EasyMail to request the protection of religious worship services, and you can do it through ARPA Canada’s EasyMail system.” And when we checked on Monday morning, 1,200-plus ARPA supporters had sent an email. And so that corresponds to what we’re hearing at the Committee stage.
LN: You know, I combine this with the three-thousand-plus emails that went to Alberta politicians on Bill 24 last week. Is this the way it’s supposed to work, André?
AS: When it comes to political action on this file, I think it’s been a great example of the requirement of Christians to do both prayer and work. It’s not enough for us to just pray. Many people might have been temped to just, you know, just pray “Please Lord, protect religious worship services, make sure that the committee changes its mind and keeps Section 176.” But if we just prayed, and we didn’t work, I’m not so sure that God would have been pleased to answer that prayer. But God is pleased to work through His people, so that when they pray and then also turn around and work – they do send an EasyMail, they do communicate with their MP; respectfully and winsomely – then we do see God being pleased to bless our work.
LN: So the Bill goes back to the House now. The Committee did suggest some amendments, I understand?
AS: Hm hm… So when ARPA Canada was presenting to the Committee, we actually proposed some amendments to the section. It is a bit older language; there’s ways to rework it to amend the language and just make it a bit more modern language and to reflect the reality that we are in a pluralist society today. So we dropped some terms, replaced them with more generic terms, and I’m pretty happy with the way the section now is worded.
LN: Any chance this is going to be turned on its head again when it hits the House, or do you think the Parliamentarians, when it goes there and ends up in the Senate, will understand that this needs to be kept?
AS: I would be surprised if it gets changed back again. I mean, it’s possible, so we can’t say for certain that this is a done deal. But certainly the heavy lifting is usually around the Committee stage there, and I think that the House of Commons will respect what the Committee is saying. It was unanimous at the Committee level, where Liberals, Conservatives, and the NDP were agreeing together that we really should keep this section. I think that speaks a lot to what’s going on here, and I think we can expect that the section will stay.