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Liberals must remember their values aren't the only ones that count

Thousands of student summer-job grants, along with a brand-new community-service program, have been rendered unavailable to organizations and people of faith, thanks to an obnoxious new Liberal values oath.

This oath is not only offensive; on its face, it's a clear violation of the very Charter rights that it claims to defend.

The Liberals say they will work with churches and other charities to ensure they can still apply for grants.

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There is a much better way. The government should scrap the odious clause from the application forms where it has popped up, apologize to Canadians for violating their right to freedom of religion and come up with something that doesn't place people in an intolerable moral conflict.

Most of all, Liberals should remind themselves that their values are not the only values that count.

Last year, 69,000 young Canadians found summer jobs, thanks to a federal government program that assists charities and small businesses who want to hire students.

But the government became alarmed by reports that several members of Parliament, who have final say over who gets the grants in their ridings, channelled grants to organizations that used the money to fund anti-abortion activities.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau believes passionately in a woman's right to choose. He also strongly opposes all forms of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender expression.

And so this year's application form for the summer jobs program includes an attestation that the applicant adheres to Charter and other fundamental human rights.

"These include reproductive rights and the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of sex, religion, race, national or ethnic origin, colour, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation or gender identity or expression." If you don't tick the box accepting this condition, your application is rejected.

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A similar attestation is required for anyone who wants to be part of the just-announced Canada Service Corps, which aims to involve young Canadians in community service.

For religious organizations that believe human life begins at conception, this is an intolerable requirement.

"Certainly in the archdiocese of Toronto, we're not signing the box," said Neil MacCarthy, a spokesman for the Roman Catholic archdiocese. "I suspect it would be the same response for other Catholic organizations across the country."

The government created a situation in which "the checking off of a box that suggests that you endorse a particular set of views is tied to the funding," Mr. MacCarthy said in an interview. "For numerous organizations that's just not possible."

Mr. Trudeau told the National Post's John Ivison, "We are not limiting freedom of expression or freedom of belief in any way, shape or form.

"We are simply saying that organizations who have the explicit purpose of limiting and eliminating Charter rights like women's rights do not qualify for government funding."

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Government officials insist that churches and other faith-based groups can apply so long as they do not intend to create jobs specifically dedicated to such things as preventing women from obtaining an abortion.

But for Jason MacLean, a law professor at University of Saskatchewan, the wording of the declaration is what it is.

"Notwithstanding the Prime Minister's backtracking, the language to me is overbroad," he observed. Prof. MacLean says the declaration would probably not survive a Charter challenge "because it infringes the fundamental right of freedom of religion and conscience in a way that is not justifiable."

Important jobs are at stake here – jobs that would see students working to help settle refugees, helping at-risk youth, assisting the homeless at shelters and soup kitchens – jobs that teach valuable life lessons. Jobs that could go unfilled because of this foolish pledge.

Not a dollar should be wasted in a court challenge. Instead, the government should retreat. As Alex Nuttall, the Conservative critic on the file, maintains, the government has an obligation "to change [the wording of the attestation], to remove it, to engage in a conversation with stakeholders, to provide clarity for these organizations."

For this writer, the best solution would be to scrap the declaration completely, while lawyers search for new wording that keeps summer-job funding out of the hands of ideological militants, without making applicants sign on to a Liberal values manifesto.

Under Stephen Harper, things were at their worst when the Conservative Party came to believe that its values and the national interest were the same thing. It took about half a decade for the Tories to become that arrogant. The Liberals got there in no time at all.

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