Archbishop Michael Miller

Archbishop Michael Miller

November 21, 2011

VANCOUVER – Although Canada has traditionally had a healthy relationship between Church and state, Catholics need to remain alert to protect religious freedom, says Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller.

There is a secularist agenda that "basically wants to privatize religion and leave it restricted to the private sphere," Miller said in a telephone interview Nov. 10.

Miller, who chairs the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops doctrine commission, led a reflection on religious freedom and freedom of conscience at the bishops' plenary in Cornwall, Ont., last month.

Pressures to compress religious freedom into private belief and private worship are not what is intended in Canada's Charter or the universal human rights documents, he said.

Miller described a number of circumstances in Canada that require vigilance:

  • The encroachment of various human rights commissions on religious institutions or on the rights of their leaders to publicly profess Christian doctrine;
  • The imposition of mandatory school programs that are contrary to Catholic teaching;
  • Forcing marriage commissioners in some provinces to conduct same-sex ceremonies against their religious convictions;
  • Forcing health care professionals to participate in or refer patients for abortion;
  • Ordering pharmacists to dispense morning-after pills against their consciences.


There needs to be a guard against a belief that rights are given to us from the state and can be taken away from us "if we're not good," he said.

Religious freedom as well as other rights are not granted by the state, Miller stressed. "They belong to us because we are human beings" who are made "in the image and likeness of God."

The state plays a role in regulating freedom when conflicts arise, and in guarding and protecting rights, he said.

Nor does religious freedom only involve individual rights.

"Religious freedom, like religion, certainly has a personal and individual dimension, but it is public and communitarian," Miller said. "If you only understand from an individual personal side, you only see half the picture."

Some, such as American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have begun referring to "freedom of worship" instead of "religious freedom." This change in language has troubled some religious freedom advocates.

Religious freedom is broader than freedom of worship.


Religious freedom includes the right to worship, he said. It also implies the right to choose your religion, to profess it publicly, and to disseminate through institutions such as churches and schools.

Parents also have the prior right to educate their children, the archbishop said.

Catholic charities in the United States face pressures to offer health coverage that includes abortion and contraceptive measures.

Miller called this "crossing the line." A religious organization should not be forced to offer benefit packages that "violate its principles."

But he said it would be rash to compare the problems in Canada with the "egregious examples" of religious persecution elsewhere in the world.

The problems Canadians face are "more subtle" than the violations of religious freedom in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, he said.

The Canadian state has respected the rightful autonomy of religions. But there are signs we need to be attentive to preserving religious freedom, he said.