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21 February 2010

Cash for Christ

That was the front-page headline of the Winnipeg Sun that caught my eye the other day, causing me to actually buy a newspaper for the first time in several years. (And I guess that's the headline writers' job.)

If you live in Winnipeg, and you've read the paper or listened to the radio lately, you know that the city council's Executive Policy Committee (chaired by His Worship Mayor Sam Katz; yup, Canada being a member of the Commonwealth, that's the guy's title) voted unanimously on Wednesday to give 2.6 million dollars (plus a $500,000 land grant) to the evangelical youth outreach organisation Youth for Christ. The final vote on this matter will occur next Wednesday, 24 February 2010, so time is short.

You can read coverage of the issue here and here and here. You can find Youth for Christ's website here.

I encourage my fellow Winnipeggers to email the City Council (if you don't know who your Councillor is, look here) and tell them how you feel. If you're concerned by the funding, say so. If you think it's a-okay, tell them that!

I've enclosed my email to City Councillor Harvey Smith below.


I hope that this email finds you well. I wanted to contact you and voice my concern over the proposed taxpayer funding of the Youth for Christ youth centre.

I'm aware that Canada has no constitutional separation of church and state, and the federal and provincial governments may in fact use Clause 33 to opt out of any portion of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms dealing with equality or many of our fundamental freedoms, including freedom of speech, association, religion, or freedom of the press. However, it remains true that the charter does guarantee these freedoms to all citizens, and the so-called "not withstanding" clause does not apply to municipal governments. [Edit: And, to be clear, I don't think it to be a pernicious clause that ought not to apply to any branch of government.] That in mind, I feel that our government has a responsibility to uphold the freedom of conscience and religion as laid out in the charter, and to avoid what MP Pat Martin has described as "taxpayer-funded proselytization". And there are many Winnipeggers who agree with him.

I quote from Youth for Christ Winnipeg's website (

We value prayer as the foundation for ministry success
Therefore, we promote individual and corporate prayer and we seek to develop prayer partners for all the staff and ministries of YFC.

We value effective, culturally relevant evangelism of teens
Therefore, we encourage creativity in our programming and strategies.

. . .

We practice living within our means, debt-free.
Therefore, we share our strengths and ministry resources with others, endeavoring to work together in the common goal of responsible youth evangelism and discipleship.

[Emphasis mine.]

Although Mr. Martin has been criticized by some for his comments, it is clear that Youth for Christ is an evangelical organisation dedicated to (among other things, certainly) proselytising to youth when they are at their most vulnerable. I agree with YfC executive director John Courtney when he says that the facility would be open to youths of all faiths, but that misses the point: would the hypothetical downtrodden Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, atheist, etc. patrons of the facility feel comfortable in a place so clearly opposed to their worldview? Do we feel comfortable using our tax dollars to endorse the Christian religion? I certainly don't.

Like Pat Martin, I have no problem with religious organisations providing much needed social services—but I am convinced that when an organisation is funded by the public, it ought to bear additional responsibilities. I am fully in favour of helping at-risk youth, but outreach and evangelism are two very different things, and we commingle them at our peril.

And so I hope that you, as a representative all citizens in our area, will vote against the proposed funding for this youth centre on Wednesday—unless you believe that evangelism is the government's business.

I am grateful for your attention in this matter.

Gem Newman

I think that my favourite comment on this issue comes from Vic Toews (here, in case you missed it):

Senior Manitoba Conservative MP Vic Toews, who is currently Public Safety Minister in Prime Minister Harper's cabinet, told the Free Press that MP Martin has his priorities mixed up and seems to prefer recruitment by inner-city gangs to programming by a religious group.

"It appears to me Pat Martin doesn't have a problem with allowing gangs to recruit in his riding, but when it comes to Youth For Christ offering programs, he suddenly has a problem with it," Toews said.

[Emphasis mine.]

Wow. Can you say false dichotomy?

To be clear, I want to emphasise that I understand that at-risk youth benefit from mentoring programs. Private citizens are free (and encouraged!) to donate to the programs of their choice—but if our government is going to fund any such programs out of the public coffers, the religious content of those programs should fall to the lowest common denominator: none at all.

I want to finish by congratulating Manitoba's NDP government for denying the project any provincial funding. Let's hope that City Council will do the same.

Update: We lost. But, it wasn't unanimous, and it garnered some excellent discussion among members of the Winnipeg Skeptics. And, if it's any consolation, Harvey Smith was one of four Councillors who voted against the motion. Thank you, Mr. Smith.

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