I neither have a horse in, nor would desire to enter one into, the race between Alberta’s Progressive Conservative candidate Alison Redford and her Wildrose rival Danielle Smith. My interests furthermore were of no concern in the American Senator Roy Blunt’s “conscience amendment” — appended to a transportation bill in response to President Barack Obama’s mandate to extend employer health coverage to contraception. In these and many other related developments around the world I am a mere observer, and so I might well say, and would prefer to say, “Best of luck to you” — and leave it at that. Unfortunately, this stuff is in the air. Wherever you happen to be, the winds are blowing in your direction. The principle of minding one’s own private business is now on a course of collision with the incipient work of fitting the square pegs of public policy into the round holes of private conscience.
Thirty years ago Queen Elizabeth II authorized the Constitution Act, thereby entrenching the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Whatever your view of the Charter, the work of sorting out intrinsically incompatible world views and notions of personal rights, and balancing these against the public interest, is the core challenge of our generation. Today this rights challenge arrives in multiple forms, from petitions for accommodation of Sharia to endorsement of gay marriage. Each challenge must be met individually, on its own merits or lack thereof. As the Wildrose candidacy of Edmonton South’s Allan Hunsperger this week drifts onto the media’s front pages, I am reminded (as if I needed a reminder) of the living notion that homosexuals will “suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering.” A conscience of a definite kind may be inferred from this assertion, and while it’s light years from my own, in my view there must be peaceful co-habitation of the skin of this Earth by the differently thinking, whenever this is both principled and possible. Now that the Wildrose party is proposing to institute a conscience-based alternative to the Alberta Human Rights Commission, I find myself keen to know what folks like Allan Hunsperger — the avid compilers of lists of the hell-bound — mean to do with it.
The balancing of competing rights and interests will stand as the supreme object of policy deliberation, at least until the world’s ideology-driven moral police get the upper hand. Balance may seem the tepid object of soft-headed middle-of-the-roaders, but in fact it requires moral courage. In the case of President Obama’s contraception health coverage mandate, there was earlier this year a widely perceived over-reaching of state power and a concomitant infringement of religious rights, thereafter succeeded by a compromise. Obama’s conciliatory conscience exemptions, although imperfect, satisfied many — but not all. The few holdouts, one could argue, were simply adhering to their own internal logic: if you are of the conviction that contraception is immoral, how it is paid for is irrelevant. The necessary thing is to keep others from having it. Once engaged on this issue, the most vocal and obdurate opponents seemed hardly to care for a compromise. But the extremists as a rule fail, because they do not represent a credible way forward. The unpleasant truth, if you happen to be an anti-contraceptives Catholic bishop, is that lay Catholics have their consciences too — and that by means of these consciences they have found contraception to be quite compatible with morality.
The Charter of Rights and Freedoms is not a perfect document, but what in this human world is perfect? Present-day criticisms of the Charter, and of related institutions and legislation such as the Canadian Human Rights Act, demonstrate the necessary work of seeking reasonable and principled balance. Those who wish to discuss and critique and engage in heated disagreement uphold the very principles of human rights, dignity, and freedom. Those who seek to impose their views on others, by means of violence or subterfuge, uphold only their selfish will.