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Religious Tolerance logo

Freedom of Canadians to religiously discriminate

A Canadian civil rights ruling dealing
with anti-gay hate verses in the Bible

Sponsored link.

Does this ad constitute hate literature?

We substituted white spaces for the chapter and verse designations of the original ad. We have no desire to be prosecuted by a Human Rights Commission somewhere in Canada.

You can view the original ad, in uncensored form, online at another web site. 1,2


bullet"...the Biblical passage which suggest that if a man lies with a man they must be put to death exposes homosexuals to hatred." Justice J. Barclay, referring to Leviticus 20:13. 3
bullet"Mr Barclay...You're a'goin' to Hell. Period!!!!!!!!!!"  [Justice Barclay is a judge at the Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench.] "Christian Wright" 4

The anti-gay ad:

On 1997-JUN-30, Hugh Owens of Regina, SK, Canada placed the above ad in the Star Phoenix, a newspaper in Saskatoon SK. 5 It is a copy of a bumper sticker that he was selling to the general public. Owens, 50, an Evangelical Christian, and a corrections officer, 4 later said that the ad was "a [conservative] Christian response" to Gay Pride Week. During an interview with the  National Catholic Register, he said:

"I put the biblical references, but not the actual verses, so the ad would become interactive. I figured somebody would have to look them up in the Bible first, or if they didn't have a Bible, they'd have to find one."

The Register reported:

"Owens denies that, as a Christian, he wants homosexuals put to death, as some inferred from the biblical passages. He believes, however, that 'eternal salvation is at stake,' both for those engaging in homosexual acts and for himself, if he fails to inform them about 'what [he believes that] God says about their behavior'." 6

 (Two of the verses that the ad cites are in the Book of Leviticus. One calls for the extermination of anyone performing certain same-sex sexual acts. Religious conservatives and liberals tend to hold diverse views about which acts are included.)

Three gay men, Jeff Dodds, Gens Hellquist, and Jason Roy felt that the ad belittled them, and subjected them to public hatred. They lodged a complaint with the Saskatchewan Human Rights Board of Inquiry. The case was heard from 1999-AUG-23 to AUG-30. On 2001-JUN-15, the board ruled that the ad exposed gay men to hatred in violation of the Saskatchewan Human Rights Code. Mr. Owens and the newspaper were both ordered to pay each of the three claimants $1,500 in Canadian funds (on the order of $1,500 U.S. at the time).

In 2006-APR-13, Saskatchewan's highest court overturned the ruling.

The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code.

Section 14 of the Code, as it read at that time, states:

"14(1) No person shall publish or display, or cause or permit to be published or displayed, on any lands or premises or in a newspaper, through a television or radio broadcasting station or any other broadcasting device, or in any printed matter or publication or by means of any other medium that he owns, controls, distributes or sells, any representation, including without restricting the generality of the foregoing, any notice, sign, symbol, emblem, article, statement or other representation:

(a) tending or likely to tend to deprive, abridge or otherwise restrict the enjoyment by any person or class of persons of any right to which he is or they are entitled under law; or

(b) which exposes, or tends to expose, to hatred, ridicules, belittles or otherwise affronts the dignity of any person, any class of persons or a group of persons; because of his or their race, creed, religion, colour, sex, sexual orientation, family status, marital status, disability, age, nationality, ancestry, place of origin or receipt of public assistance.

14(2) Nothing in subsection (1) restricts the right to freedom of speech under the law upon any subject." 7

The wording of the Code seems puzzling:

bulletSection 14(1) lists many forms of speech which are restricted in Saskatchewan under the law.
bulletSection 14(2) says that nothing in subsection (1) restricts freedom of speech.

We haven't the foggiest notion how to harmonize these two subsections. But then, none of us are lawyers.

Sponsored link:

About Leviticus 20:13:

According to the Bible, Moses wrote the Pentateuch -- the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). This includes the book of Leviticus. The five books record a total of 613 laws given by God to govern the behavior of the ancient Hebrews. This verse is one of those laws. In most English translations of the Bible, it calls for the state execution of all sexually-active gay males. In the NIV translation, which Owens mentions in his ad:

"If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. they must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads."

There is a wide range of opinion about the meaning and validity of this passage today:

bulletMost Bible translations make it clear that the passage refers only to sexual activity by gays. Two exceptions are the Living Bible and New Living Translation which appear to have mistranslated the original Hebrew. They expanded the verse, without justification, to include same-sex behavior by lesbians as well as male gays:
bulletLiving Bible: "The penalty for homosexuality acts is death to both parties. They have brought it upon themselves."
bulletNew Living Translation: "The penalty for homosexual acts is death to both parties. They have committed a detestable act, and are guilty of a capital offense."
bulletWith the exception of Christian Reconstructionists and a few Christian hate groups, very few Christians favor the mass stoning to death of of gays today.
bulletMany religious liberals believe that Leviticus 20:13 refers only to male homosexual ritual activities in ancient Pagan temples. The verse does not apply to consensual sex between two men today.
bulletMany Jews believe that the Mosaic Code applies only to Jews.
bulletDuring the human rights inquiry into the ad, two novel interpretations were expressed about the verse from Leviticus 20. We have been unable to find material in texts or elsewhere on the Internet which support these beliefs:
bulletCecilia Forsyth, president of the Saskatchewan Chapter of REAL Women of Canada denied that the passage in Leviticus calls for the death penalty. She said that: "the Bible passage refers to God's penalty, not that of man." 8 All Jewish and Christian articles, books and reports that we have studied interpret this verse as one of the laws in the Mosaic Code, to be implemented by the ancient Hebrews as part of their civil legislation.
bulletThe Rev. Grant Hawkes, pastor of the gay-positive Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto stated that many biblical scholars believe that the passages referred to in the ad condemn abusive "pedophilia," not homosexuality. This statement is true for the passage in 1 Corinthians 6:9. But the other verses cited appear to target behaviors between adults only.

The Human Rights Commission's board of inquiry:

Valerie Watson, a one-person board of inquiry was commissioned by the Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission to collect information on the case.

Witnesses for the complainants included:

bulletMadiha Didi Khayatt, a sociological expert on human sexuality from York University,  who argued that to discriminate against homosexuals in their sexual activity is a form of prejudice.
bulletRev. Grant Hawkes, of the gay-positive Metropolitan Community Church of Toronto, stated that "it is inaccurate that the Bible condemns homosexuals."
bulletThe Rev. Canon Colin Clay, Anglican chaplain of the University of Saskatchewan,  said that Owen's ad published biblical texts out of context, and thus created an environment in which people would be hurt. He said the Bible is really all about love.
bulletRabbi Steve Kaplan of the Saskatoon Jewish Centre, believes that the Bible condemns homosexuality. He said:  "The Bible is the Bible, is the Bible; it cannot be changed."
bulletPaul Donlevy, vicar general for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon testified that the church understands sexual orientation may not be chosen, but nevertheless "every person is called to holiness . . . and homosexuals are called to the same sexual morality as any other unmarried people." Afterwards, he said: "All I said was a variation on hate the sin but love the sinner....I certainly hope this decision is appealed. It?s a great concern that simply referring to biblical scriptures can be called hate speech. Soon we?ll be so politically correct, we won?t be able to preach." He was criticized both by the complainants and later by a conservative lobby group, who called him "a lackey of the Human Rights Commission." 9
bulletLeaders from a Lutheran denomination supported the newspaper, insisting that human rights laws must not restrict their followers' free expression of religious beliefs, either in church or in a newspaper.

Watson found that the icon composed of stick figures of two males holding hands with a red circle and slash was not enough to communicate hatred. But she considered the addition of the biblical references to be dangerous. She found that:

bullet"There is no question that Mr. Owens believed that he was publicly expressing his honestly held religious beliefs." 10
bulletThe advertisement violated section 14(1) of the Code by exposing homosexuals "to hatred, ridicule...their dignity was affronted on the basis of their sexual orientation." 6
bulletThe ad was not protected by section 14(2) of the Code which guarantees freedom of speech.
bulletSection 14(1) does not violate section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms -- Canada's constitution -- because the restriction placed on freedom of expression constituted a reasonable limit under section 1 of the Charter. Thus, the human rights code in the province can place a "reasonable restriction" on Owen's religious expression.

Watson stressed that the ruling did not ban parts of the Bible. She wrote that the offense was the combination of the symbol with the biblical references. Owens, in fact, had published another ad in 2001, without complaint, that quoted the full text of these same four passages.

Some comments cited in the media during mid-2001:

bulletGens Hellquist, one of the gay complainants said that the ad: "...says someone is using their interpretation of the Bible to direct hatred towards me." Later, after the tribunal's ruling, he said that he was "certainly pleased [with the decision of the tribunal]. There are standards for what's fair comment regarding Jews and racial minorities, and now the commission has set standards on fair comment regarding homosexuals. [The appeal to religious freedom is] a common ploy with the right wing, [but religious freedom is] not a real issue here, [since] not everyone interprets those verses the same way. People are free to interpret the Bible any way they want in their own lives, but (they cannot use) that interpretation to create a climate of hate and intolerance. Owens? agenda is really scary. He didn?t say it in so many words, but he really believes that judges (following Leviticus) should put gays to death." 9
bulletJoanne Laucius reporter at the Ottawa Citizen wrote: "The decision has raised questions about freedom of speech, and whether some quotations from the Bible can promote hatred."
bulletMr. Owens noted that Canadian law does not follow the Bible's instructions. Referring to the passage in Leviticus, he said: "This is based on God's law. We don't have God's law entrenched in our Criminal Code. Adultery is punishable by death according to God's law. But we don't do that."
bulletRoger Hutchinson, professor of ethics at the University of Toronto's United Church theological college, said the Bible is a multi-faceted set of stories that are open to interpretation. He said: "You can read in the Bible that you should sell everything you own or you won't get into heaven. You don't find people condemning homosexuality selling everything they own."
bulletLyle Sinkewicz, publisher of the Star Phoenix newspaper said he sees the case as a freedom of speech issue. He said: "What we have here are two conflicting rights, both protected under the [Canadian] Charter of Rights' and Freedoms."
bulletJohn Robson of Southam News wrote: "The long-overdue collision between Canada's 'hate speech' laws and religion is finally happening. I think God could be in trouble. For holy books are generally full of what God likes and, pardon the term, hates. Shall we consign them to the flames in the name of tolerance? So it seems." 2
bulletConservative gay activist John McKellar, president of Homosexuals Opposed to Pride Extremism (HOPE), called the ruling a "five-star bloodbath," both for Canadian families and for Canadian homosexuals. He thinks that gays who seek equal rights are now "pots calling kettles black." He views them as suppressing what they see as religious intolerance, while their own intolerance will eventually rebound on them. McKellar said: "The major media are all nonstop advertisements for the gay lifestyle, so how far are they prepared to go in denying free speech to Christians, Muslims, and Jews?...."No major world religion has ever accepted homosexual behavior. And if [gay] activists had any sense of history, they?d realize their own lifestyle is a symptom of an overurbanized, relativized culture heading into decadence. 9
bulletIan Hunter, professor emeritus at the University of Western Ontario Law School wrote:  "Owens would have been safe had he not made references to the Bible. In human rights circles, the Bible is increasingly regarded as an insidious form of hate literature?. Freedom of speech, press and religion all yield to a complainant's hurt feelings." 11

The first appeal:

The decision by the Saskatchewan human rights tribunal was appealed to the Court of Queen's Bench. Justice J. Barclay upheld the ruling. 12 On 2002-DEC-11, apparently referring to the required death penalty in Leviticus 20 for sexually active gays, he wrote: "The use of the circle and the slash combined with the passages of the Bible herein make the meaning of the advertisement unmistakable. It is clear that the advertisement is intended to make the group depicted appear to be inferior or not wanted at best. When combined with the Biblical quotations, the advertisement may result in a much stronger meaning. It is obvious that certain of the Biblical quotations suggest more dire consequences and there can be no question that the advertisement can objectively be seen as exposing homosexuals to hatred or ridicule." 13

"The appellant in his testing believes that homosexuals, by being who they are, are committing a sin for which they should be put to death. Furthermore, the passages from the Bible, which are cited in the bumper sticker and in the advertisement, constitute the appellant's authority for this belief. This belief motivates the message in the bumper sticker and the advertisement. The most favourable interpretation that could be given to the bumper stickers is that because the Bible sanctions the execution of homosexuals, we should be allowed to at least prohibit their activities. However, the Board observed there is a more sinister interpretation."

He wrote that the human-rights panel "was correct in concluding that the advertisement can objectively be seen as exposing homosexuals to hatred or ridicule....When the use of the circle and slash is combined with the passages of the Bible, it exposes homosexuals to detestation, vilification and disgrace. In other words, the Biblical passage which suggest that if a man lies with a man they must be put to death exposes homosexuals to hatred." 6,13

The second appeal:

The case was taken to Saskatchewan's Court of Appeal -- the province's  highest court. It ruled on 2006-APR-13 that the ad did not violate the human rights code. Justice Bob Richards wrote the decision for the majority, saying that the ad was: "bluntly presented and doubtlessly upsetting to many." 13 However, it did not violate the code. Richards also stated that Owens had the constitutional right to express publicly what the court determined were his sincerely held religious beliefs -- most notable of which appears to be that sexually active gays should be arrested and executed, according to Leviticus 20.13.

Response to the Appeal Court ruling:

We noticed that Focus on the Family Canada discussed the resolution of this case as a "victory for religious freedom." They cite four responses:

Hugh Owens told the Regina Leader-Post:

"This decision says sharing the gospel message concerning this particular sexual behavior or any other behavior is protected and not a violation of the [Saskatchewan] Human Rights Code."

Ruth Ross, executive director of the Christian Legal Fellowship said  in a press release:

"This is a clear victory for Christians who have in recent years been marginalized in speaking out publicly on issues of morality and Christian family values and beliefs. What this decision confirms is that passages contained in the Holy Bible, the foundation of our faith, cannot and should not in themselves be deemed hate literature."

Janet Epp Buckingham, director of law and public policy for the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada wrote:

"I, for one, do not believe it is particularly Christian to go around condemning people and then claim that it is part of one?s religious beliefs. Nevertheless, once an issue like this gets to court, and the courts start dealing with religious freedom, Christians need to be there to ensure that Christians do not lose the ability to distribute Scriptures or the ability to speak publicly on sexual morality as a side casualty in the legal process."

An editorial in the Calgary Herald for 2006-APR-16 said that the ruling was "significant" and:

"long overdue.....It restrains a culture that, in protecting hurt feelings, limits speech and much exceeds the mandate [the commission] was given to fight discrimination in employment and housing."

Webmaster's opinion:

Warning: this is one of those rare locations in this web site where I remove my quasi-objective reporter hat and express my personal beliefs and feelings.

I feel that the decision by the Court of Appeal was correct. In a democracy, there are no protections in place that protect you from being offended by ads in the media. Everyone has considerable freedom of expression. Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedom guarantees

"...freedom of conscience and religion, [and] freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, the press and other media of communication."

Meanwhile, Section 319 of the Criminal Code allows a person to disseminate hate propaganda if:

"in good faith, he expressed or attempted to establish by argument an opinion on a religious subject."

But there are limits. If you are a religious conservative who feels that the government should arrest, try and execute an identified minority of Canadians according to Leviticus 20:13a in the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament):

"If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death..."

then you should not have the right to promote such genocide in the media. You should also not have the right to advocate the genocide of either women, men or intersexuals, specific racial groups, language groups, the disabled, etc.

In the U.S., freedom of speech laws allow a person the right to advocate genocide. But should they exercise that right? I wonder about the effect that this ruling will have on the religious opinions of Canadians -- particularly youths and young adults.

Canadian culture is going through a transition. Most young people now accept the findings of human sexuality researchers and mental health therapists who have determined that a homosexual orientation is simply one of three possible normal, natural, unchosen, morally neutral, and fixed sexual identities -- the other two being heterosexuality and bisexuality. When they see an ad linked to Leviticus 20:13a what will they think? Will they reject a religion whose holy book advocates death to those sexually active citizens who happen to have a homosexual orientation? Will they be repulsed at a religion whose members advocate genocide? I suspect that the answer is yes. Christianity will suffer from the after-effects of attempts by religious conservatives to advocate discrimination against sexual minorities.

It is fine to comment on the necessity for freedom of religious expression. But when  a group of conservative Christians devoutly believes that a minority in society should be rounded up, tried and executed for expressing love in the only way open to them, then I wonder whether the Christian religion will suffer long-term damage if this belief is advertised in the media.

Bruce steps down and packs away his soap box, for now.


The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Canadian Human Rights Commission recognizes parts of Bible as hate literature," Secular News Headlines, at: http://www.eunacom.net/

  2. "Bible: Decision raises questions about freedom of speech," Ottawa Citizen, 2001-JUN-29, Front page, at: http://www.eunacom.net/

  3. The text of the ruling by Justice J. Barclay of the Court of Queen's Bench in  "Owens v. Saksatchewan (Human Rights Commission) QB02511" is online at: http://www.aloha.net/ and at: http://www.canlii.org/
  4. "Christian Wright," "Vile Kanucks consider parts of the Bible, "HATE LITERATURE"! Well, take-off you hellbound hooser..." Voy Forums, 2003-FEB-18, at: http://www.voy.com/
  5. "Anti-gay ad ruling sparks concern over freedom of religion: Christian ordered to pay restitution for anti-gay ad," Christian Week Online, 2001-JUL-24, at: http://www.christianweek.org/
  6. "Bible verses ruled 'hate' by Sask. court," FreedomSite, at: http://www.freedomsite.org/
  7. "The Saskatchewan Human Rights Code," Government of Saskatchewan, Canada, at: http://www.qp.gov.sk.ca/ You need software to read these PDF files. It can be obtained free from:
  8. Cecilia Forsyth, "Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission: A Legal Fiasco," REAL Women of Canada, at: http://www.realwomenca.com/
  9. "Belief and Conduct in Canada," Liberty Online, 2001-NOV/DEC, at: http://libertymagazine.org/ 
  10. Ian Hunter, "Worshipping the God Equality," The Globe and Mail, Toronto, Canada, 2001-JUL-5 at: http://jeffsarchive.com/
  11. "Anti-gay ad ruling sparks concern over freedom of religion," ChristianWeek, 2001-JUL-24, at: http://www.christianweek.org/
  12. "Bible verses regarded as hate literature," Sinarg.org, 2003-FEB-25, at: http://www.sinarg.org/
  13. The text of the ruling by Justice J. Barclay of the Court of Queen's Bench in  "Owens v. Saksatchewan (Human Rights Commission) QB02511" is online at: http://www.aloha.net/ and at: http://www.canlii.org/

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Copyright © 2003 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2003-MAY-20
Latest update: 2009-FEB-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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