Religious leaders are calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to reverse a policy requiring organizations to pledge their respect for abortion rights and the rights of LGBTQ Canadians before receiving federal funding to create summer jobs for youth.
Representatives of nearly 90 Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups issued a letter to Trudeau, urging him to accommodate the "diversity of values and beliefs" in Canadian society.
"We want to ensure that Canadians continue to benefit from the collaboration between government and faith-based organizations, working together for the common good of our country," Evangelical Fellowship of Canada President Bruce Clemenger said at a news conference where the letter was introduced.
"We are unable to give non-negotiable, unqualified affirmation to undefined values and other rights ... At the risk of losing funding or programs themselves that benefit so many Canadians, the government has placed us in an untenable situation."
Trudeau's government has said organizations seeking summer job funding will have to affirm that neither their "core mandate" nor the job itself oppose human rights, including those related to abortion, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Officials have clarified that the "core mandate" referred to in the policy relates to groups' "primary activities," not their religious views.
The government has said it received complaints last year that federal summer job money had been given to summer camps that refuse to hire LGBTQ staff and groups that distribute graphic anti-abortion pamphlets.
The religious leaders who spoke at Thursday's event – including members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Canadian Council of Imams and the Jewish Shaarei Shomayim Congregation – said the government ought to target the specific groups at the root of those concerns.
"If the government has a difficulty with a particular group doing something which they feel is not acceptable, I would say they should speak to that group," said Archbishop of Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins. "But to put in a kind of wide-open ideological test for everybody – which we cannot in conscience sign – I think that's not fair."
Speaking in Ottawa, Employment Minister Patty Hajdu suggested that wasn't possible.
The groups the government is targeting are ones that routinely misled federal officials about the nature of their organizations and the jobs the students would perform, Hajdu said. She said departmental and political staff tried unsuccessfully to screen out these groups.
"It was actually practically impossible to catch them all. So the advice that we received was to have groups attest to the fact that they would, in fact, not ask students to conduct activities that undermine basic Canadian rights," she said after a meeting with her provincial and territorial counterparts.
Rabbi Chaim Strauchler, speaking for the Shaarei Shomayim Congregation, said that while his organization has very few summer jobs that will be affected by the government's attestation plan, they are concerned with what the policy could be turned into in years to come.
"What is a core mandate? What is it now, and what will it be five years from now or 10 years from now?" Strauchler said.
Hajdu said earlier this week that the Liberal government is prepared to defend its policy against legal challenges, on the basis that Canadian law protects citizens from discrimination.