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Was pastor encouraged by right-wing allies to say intemperate things that could cost his private schools?

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David Eggen

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Who will Rev. Brian Coldwell blame if the Alberta government cuts off funding to two private Christian schools he administers for his open and aggressive defiance of a new law requiring all provincially funded schools to permit students to form gay-straight alliances if they wish?

The NDP government, which the Baptist clergyman has given no choice but to take action or appear to capitulate? Or the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties, which seem to have encouraged him to take a defiant stand, then left him to twist in the wind?

Readers may wonder how it can be said with such confidence Pastor Coldwell was encouraged by those two political parties to vow to break the law so openly the government was left with no option but to defund the Harvest Baptist Academy in Spruce Grove and the Meadows Baptist Academy in Edmonton.

Well, for that, we have Coldwell's own persuasive testimony to LifeSiteNews.com, a website associated with ultra-conservative religious views and opposition to reproductive rights. According to an online article published there on Aug. 24, Coldwell said he was "very disappointed" with the 'unwillingness to act" of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties.

After all, Coldwell explained, "Behind the scenes, they have told us it is up to us to rouse the parents, to get the media on our side and do the job of the opposition."

"If and when we do, they will be happy to take over and take all the credit," he continued, on a dissatisfied note.

It is very difficult to avoid the conclusion Coldwell and possibly others from his church and the Independent Baptist Christian Education Society, which runs the two schools, have been working behind the scenes with the two conservative opposition parties to box the NDP government and create a potentially politically embarrassing situation for them.

The plan appears to have been to paint any enforcement of the law as an infringement of parents' rights and Canadians' fundamental right to their own religious beliefs. Indeed, Coldwell and his supporters have already made statements saying just that -- although, publicly, representatives of the PC and Wildrose parties have been far cagier.

It is possible, of course, that Coldwell misunderstood whatever he was told by the Wildrose and PC parties' representatives -- although his statement seems believable to me, and certainly sounds as if he sincerely believes it. I think we can take his word for it.

It is also possible LifeSiteNews.com got what he said wrong -- although, again, this seems unlikely. More than a week has passed since publication of the story and there's no suggestion he has retracted or clarified anything. When Coldwell was interviewed, he must have assumed, rightly, that he was speaking to a sympathetic audience.

So there's no reason to think the story got what Coldwell said wrong, or that he is wrong about what went on between him and the Wildrose and PC parties.

Nevertheless, the parties' views about what happened might be a good question for representatives mainstream media organizations, members of the Alberta Legislative Press Gallery with privileged access to politicians from both Opposition parties, to ask party spokespeople about this week. The same questions should probably be asked of PC leadership candidate Jason Kenney's campaign, which is known to have been talking to a private school advocacy organization on whose board Coldwell sits.

Meanwhile, the NDP Government has left the door open to the two Baptist academies retaining their public funding, but for that to happen Pastor Coldwell must find a way to step back from the brink and comply with the law.

On Aug. 30, he told the CBC "there is no way under heaven I'm going to allow gay activists to come in here and basically undermine our ministries and our religious freedoms or confuse and corrupt our children." So perhaps he could say he's been reassured the intention of the government isn't to corrupt children, or put parents' religious freedom at risk.

Still, it would be a significant climb-down for Pastor Coldwell to repent after saying such intemperate things about the government. From this perspective, it appears he himself has been boxed into making statements that benefit two political parties with no interests at heart but their own, certainly not those of the two private schools' pupils.

It would be quite dangerous for the NDP to back away from enforcing a law that enjoys significant popular backing, including among many moderate conservatives, and for which there is an enthusiastic and vocal support group.

So don't expect Education Minister David Eggen just to just drop this issue. This isn't like Bill 6, the NDP's farm safety legislation, in which one side was energized and the other wasn't paying attention. Whatever Eggen does, this potato's going to stay hot.

Meanwhile, the dispute seems fated to end up before the courts, which will have the difficult job of balancing the right of individuals to practice their religion and the right of all citizens to be safe from bullying and coercion.

Since we know that bullying and violence against LGBTQ children in schools are real phenomena, with serious consequences, this is not a clear-cut constitutional religious freedom case as Coldwell's supposed friends on the political right pretend.

Like those who claim they have a fundamental free-speech right to cry "Fire!" in a crowded theatre, Coldwell's supporters could find their "religious freedom" curtailed as a result of the balancing act the courts will sooner or later be required to perform.

Courts in North America have no problem restricting the religious freedom of those who believe, on good Biblical authority, that "He that spareth his rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes."

Never mind this view is said to be that of King Solomon, who was reputed to be very wise. If you beat your children, let alone contrive to chop them in two, you can expect a visit from the police and a social worker.

No one, liberal or conservative, was shocked to hear an Indianapolis prosecutor recently say a mother who beat her child with a wire hanger went "beyond these religious instructions" and that preventing child abuse trumps religious freedom. The same thing would happen in Canada in similar circumstances.

Likewise, parents who interpret the Old Testament's prohibition on eating blood to deny children whose lives may be in danger access to life-saving blood transfusions will usually get little sympathy from the courts no matter how sincere their beliefs.

And woe betide anyone who kills their children because they work on the Sabbath or convert to another religion, barbaric cultural practices the Old Testament commands.

The first thing our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms states is that there are limits on all freedoms. This situation is no different.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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