Nearly 2 years after a Canadian tribunal put the Bible’s treatment of homosexuality on trial, a lone human-rights official has determined that public display of scripture verses condemning homosexuality subjects those with alternative sexual lifestyles to hatred.
The case began on June 30, 1997, when Saskatchewan resident Hugh Owen paid for an advertisement in the Saskatoon StarPhoenix. The ad displayed citations of four Bible verses on the left, an equals sign and a picture of two male stick figures holding hands inside the international symbol for “no” on the right. Owens, a Christian, placed the ad in the StarPhoenix to coincide with Gay Pride Week. His intention, according to a Canadian pro-life news organization, was to draw people’s attention to the Biblical teachings on homosexuality. The Bible passages were from Romans, Leviticus and First Corinthians.
Homosexual activists Jeff Dodds, Jason Roy and Gens Hellquist saw the ad and complained to the province’s Human Rights Commission, which acts as an administrative court to alleviate case-loads of the judicial system. Each complaint letter asserted Owens’ advertisement “tends to restrict the enjoyment of rights which I am entitled to under the law, and exposes me to hatred and otherwise affronts my dignity because of my sexual orientation, contrary to Section 14 of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.”
That code prohibits publication and radio and television broadcasts of “any statement or other representation” that offends any individual or group based on “race, creed, religion, color, sex, sexual orientation, family status, marital status, disability, age, nationality, place of origin or receipt of public assistance.”
Two years later, in August 1999, a one-person board of inquiry heard the case with witnesses from both sides of the debate — the StarPhoenix and Owens saying the ad is an expression of free speech, and the plaintiffs along with government-procured witnesses claiming the ad incited hatred and violence against homosexuals.
In a strange turn of events, the Human Rights Commission set out to prove the StarPhoenix wrong by changing the focus of the hearing — from adjudicating a possible human rights violation to determining whether or not the Bible condemns homosexuality. To accomplish that goal, Rev. Brent Hawkes of the Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto testified to the commission that the Bible does not necessarily condemn homosexuality.
According to the commission’s closing arguments, “Rev. Brent Hawkes cast doubt on the biblical passages which Owens purports to be the word of God, pointing out that many scholars are now questioning whether those passages refer to homosexuality at all.”
Hawkes even went so far as to declare that Roman Catholics and Orthodox Jews will be punished by God for holding that the practice of homosexuality is wrong.
The government’s case held water with Valerie Watson, the one-person “board of inquiry” authorized to decide the case. In her June 15 decision, Watson wrote: “Having reviewed all of the evidence, the Board accepts that the universal symbol for forbidden, not allowed or not wanted, consisting of a circle with a slash through it, may itself not communicate hatred. However, when combined with the passages from the Bible, the Board finds that the advertisement would expose or tend to expose homosexuals to hatred or ridicule, or may otherwise affront their dignity on the basis of their sexual orientation. It is the combination of both the symbol and the biblical references which have lead (sic) to this decision.”
Watson prohibited Owens from publishing or broadcasting the advertisement in any medium. Owens had originally designed and produced the ad as a bumper sticker, the display of which is also prohibited. Additionally, both he and the StarPhoenix must make separate payments of $1,500 to each complainant, and the StarPhoenix is prohibited from accepting the specific ad from Owens in the future.
The three complainants, through their government counsel, had asked that Owens and the newspaper also pay the $4,500 bill for the expert witnesses that had testified against Owens, but Watson did not order such payment.
In the ruling, Watson conceded, “There is no question that Mr. Owens believed that he was publicly expressing his honestly held religious belief as it related to his interpretation of the Bible and its discussion of homosexuality.” She then added that the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code issues a “reasonable restriction on Mr. Owens’ right to freedom of expression,” since the ad exposed the complainants “to hatred, ridicule and their dignity was affronted on the basis of their sexual orientation.”
Commenting on the case during the hearings, University of Western Ontario law professor Ian Hunter wrote, “If Mr. Owens cannot express his opinions through a paid ad in the StarPhoenix, can he express them from a street corner soapbox? From the pulpit of a church? Should he get himself elected, in the House of Commons? Do we have the right to express anti-consensus views anywhere in Canada?”
Similar case in New York
The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code is akin to Section 8-101 of New York City’s administrative code, which the American Family Association’s Center for Law & Policy is considering challenging as unconstitutional. The code goes beyond criminalizing “bias-related violence or harassment” against homosexuals and other groups. Rather, it allows for the creation of a city agency to “eliminate and prevent discrimination from playing any role in actions relating to employment, public accommodations, and housing and other real estate, and to take other actions against prejudice, intolerance, bigotry, discrimination and bias-related violence or harassment.”
Those “other actions” have included the removal of two Staten Island billboards that displayed four translations of Leviticus 18:22. One of the four translations used was the New International Version, which reads, “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.” At the top of the advertisements was, “Word on the street; 4 ways to say Leviticus 18:22.” The four versions of the verse follow, and the bottom of the billboards read, “I AM YOUR CREATOR.” The billboards were placed in or near communities in which numerous homosexuals reside.
Rev. Kristopher Okwedy of Keyword Ministries is suing Staten Island Borough President Guy Molinari for violating the Establishment Clause because of Molinari’s insistence that the billboards be taken down.
On March 8, 2000, Molinari wrote a letter to PNE Media – which owns and operates the billboards – in his official capacity as borough president and on city stationery in which he specifically references the Bible verse as one “commonly invoked as a biblical prohibition against homosexuality.” He continued, “Many members of the Staten Island community, myself included, find this message unnecessarily confrontational and offensive. As Borough President of Staten Island, I want to inform you that this message conveys an atmosphere of intolerance which is not welcome in our Borough.”
The case is currently pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. As for the Canadian case, it was expected to reach as high as the Canadian Supreme Court. But StarPhoenix Publisher Lyle Sinkewicz said the paper planned to pay the ordered amount to “get it out of the way.”