CCN—Eighty-seven religious leaders and counting have signed a request that the Liberal government drop its requirement of an attestation regarding abortion and sexual minorities before receiving summer job grants.

“The promise of a free and democratic society is that there be no religious or ideological test or conditions to receiving government benefit or protection,” said the Jan. 25 statement signed by Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders.

Cardinal Thomas Collins, speaking on behalf of Canada’s Catholic bishops, said they were all anxious to continue working with the government.

“Nobody here is trying to start any conflict,” Cardinal Collins said at a joint press conference with other faith leaders at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church in Toronto. “We follow the law, the Charter of Rights and the human rights codes. What more do you want?”

Employment Minister Patty Hajdu told an Ottawa news conference later the same day her government has no intention of either removing the attestation or changing its wording to better meet the concerns of the faith leaders.   She continued to stress the government would not be funding any jobs that work to undermine Canadians’ rights.

Cardinal Collins is convinced the government didn’t intend to upset such a wide swath of religious Canadians.

“If the government has a problem with a particular group doing something they disagree with, they should talk to those groups,” he said. “The handing out of graphic anti-abortion material is very troubling, I know.”

“To have a wide open ideological test for everybody, which we cannot in conscience sign, that’s just not fair,” said Cardinal Collins.

Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of Shaarei Shomayim Congregation emphasized how troubling it is for Jews to see the government impose an ideological or values test on any minority.

“We have been a minority throughout history. We are very sensitive to the possibility of the majority trying to impose values, even if we agree with those values… (forcing people) to believe or to act in a certain way not in accord with their basic values,” Strauchler said.

St. Benedict’s parish is home to a summer day camp in a neighbourhood with many low income families.

Grade 10 student Natalia Opara has been a camp counsellor at St. Benedict’s for two years, following eight years as a camper.

“It feels like a family when I walk through the door. I only get to see some of these people one month every year,” said Opara.

Opara worries about the families who might be denied an affordable summer camp this July.

“It feels pretty good to help some of the families,” Opara said.

Bruce Clemenger, president of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, told the media that over 1,500 Evangelical projects have received funding from Canada’s Summer Jobs in the past.

“The government has placed us in an untenable position,” he said.

“We’re worried about the future, not just now,” said Imam Refaat Mohamed of the Canadian Council of Imams.

Ideological tests, if allowed, could be used in other ways if it is permitted for this issue, said Mohamed.

“We love the differences we have in Canada. We are really proud of who we are. And we should always respect those with different beliefs,” Mohamed said.

In an attempt to quell the growing number of voices critical of the funding policy, Hajdu also made personal phone calls Jan. 22-23 to a number of organizations, including the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), and added a supplementary guide to define “core mandate” of an organization. 

Hajdu contacted the CCCB on Jan. 22 “for the first time with a short telephone call,” according to a CCCB spokesman, but the bishops remain “seriously concerned.”

“The attestation and examples still amount to the government’s coercion on matters of conscience and religious belief,” said a statement from the CCCB’s communications director Rene Laprise. “They foreclose the possibility of wide ranging views and even healthy disagreement. The attestation remains unacceptable.” 

Hajdu has continued to defend her government’s stance that an organization that wants summer jobs funding must check off the box on the application that attests to the organization’s adherence to the abortion rights.

“Government funding should never go to pay for work that seeks to remove Canadians’ rights — like a woman’s right to choose, or LGBTQ2 rights,” Hajdu wrote. “In 2017, our government heard concerns from Canadians about the Canada Summer Jobs program. It came to our attention that funding was being used to undermine the rights of Canadians. For example, funding was used to support organizations that distribute graphic images of aborted fetuses, and organizations that do not welcome LGBTQ2 young people at their youth programs.”

With files from Deborah Gyapong.