– Interreligious leaders from across Canada came together Thursday to sign a statement urging the national government to respect their freedom of conscience by changing controversial new requirements to qualify for federal funding of youth summer jobs.

“The changes to the Canada Summer Jobs guidelines and application not only violate the fundamental freedoms of faith-based organizations, they also significantly impact the broader communities served by their programs, often the most vulnerable in Canadian Society,” reads the interreligious statement signed Jan. 25 by 87 religious leaders, organizations, and institutions.

Signatories included representatives of the Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches, as well as the Protestant, Jewish, and Muslim communities of Canada.

Federal funding requirements for the Canada Summer Jobs program were added Dec. 19, 2017 stipulating that “both the job and the organization’s core mandate respect individual human rights in Canada,” including “reproductive rights,” or the right to abortion access.

“An organization that has the explicit purpose of restricting women’s rights by removing rights to abortion and the rights of women to control their own bodies is not in line with where we are as a government, and quite frankly, where we are as a society,” said Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau when he discussed the Canada Summer Jobs program Jan. 10.

Trudeau continued, “Women have fought for generations for the right to control their own bodies, to be able to choose for themselves what to do with their bodies … There are organizations that couch themselves in freedom of speech and freedom of conscience … when those beliefs lead to actions aimed to restrict a woman’s right on what to do with her body, that’s where we draw the line.”

Diverse religious leaders came together in Toronto the afternoon of Jan. 25 and released the following statement:

“We … call on the Prime Minister and the Government of Canada to amend the Canada Summer Jobs guidelines and application process so that it does not compel agreement or belief, and allows religious organizations to stay true to their communal identity and beliefs. The new application requires each organization to give non-negotiable and unqualified affirmation of certain beliefs held by the government.”

Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto was among the speakers at the statement’s release.

“Many organizations will be deemed ineligible because they are unable to or unwilling to attest that their core mandate and beliefs align with the current government’s self-identified values. These groups, though their views and actions are accepted by law and by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are being denied access to a government benefit solely because of their religious beliefs or conscientious objection,” the cardinal said.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops originally raised objections to changes in the federal funding requirements for the Canada Summer Jobs program in a Jan. 11 statement.

In response, the Canadian government issued “supplementary information” Jan. 23 about what situations would warrant a denial of funds. This clarification of the new policy emphasizes a distinction between the activities and the beliefs of an organization when the government determines who will receive funding.

The statement also includes five examples of how eligibility is determined, with a hypothetical “faith-based organization with anti-abortion beliefs” among its examples.

“Example 1: An organization whose primary activities are focused on removing, or actively undermining existing women’s reproductive rights, applies for funding. This organization would not be eligible to apply,” begins the list.

The next example differentiates a situation in which “a faith-based organization with anti-abortion beliefs applies for funding to hire students to serve meals to the homeless. The organization provides numerous programs in support of their community. The students would be responsible for meal planning, buying groceries, serving meals, etc. This organization would be eligible to apply,” according to the Employment and Social Development department of Canada.

However, a summer camp that “does not welcome LGBTQ2 young people” would not be eligible to apply for funding to hire students as camp counselors, while “a faith-based organization that embraces a traditional definition of marriage” could hire students for the primary purpose of assisting the elderly “regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or expression,” according to other examples.

The examples thus hinge on whether the core mandate, which is defined as the “the primary activities undertaken by the organization,” respect the “established individual human rights of Canada,” rather than the beliefs or values of the organization.

Father Raymond de Souza, a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, commented on this distinction saying, “It is embarrassing that the employment minister seems unaware a basic element of political liberty, freedom of expression and religious liberty is that the state does not determine what the “core mandate” of a citizen is,” in an opinion piece at the National Post.

Patty Hajdu, the Canadian Minister of Employment, Workforce, and Labour, wrote on Twitter Jan. 23 that “Canadians expect us to defend their hard-won rights. Canada Summer Jobs funding will no longer support activities that seek to remove individual rights, like a woman’s right to choose or LGBTQ2 rights.”

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops told Catholic News Agency Jan. 24 that they remain “seriously concerned that the beliefs and practices of Catholics and other faith traditions will exclude them from receiving funding through the Canada Summer Jobs Program.”

“The attestation and examples still amount to the government’s coercion on matters of conscience and religious belief. They foreclose the possibility of wide ranging views and even healthy disagreement,” the bishops explained.

“In the Archdiocese of Toronto alone, we know that at least 150 summer jobs will be impacted by the new application requirements,” Collins said at the interreligious press conference.