The Gospel on Trial

Free Speech Case in Canada Centers on the Gospel

There’s an important case pending in Canada regarding free speech and conventional Judeo-Christian beliefs about sex and morality, but it’s about a lot more than free speech. It all started in 2016 when Bill Whatcott attended Toronto Pride and handed out flyers. The flyer criticized Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other activist political figures, warned of medical risks of gay sex, and offered the Gospel as an alternative way of life:

"If you are tired of your sin and want to come to your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and receive the free gift of eternal life, you can call: Bill Whatcott, Phone 306-861-6140, e-mail: [email protected], website: www.freenorthamerica.ca"

It closed with this quotation from the New Testament book of 1 Peter:

“To this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” 1 Peter 2:21-24

Two years later, Whatcott was informed that a national arrest warrant had been issued against him for “Willful Promotion of Hatred.” When he learned of the warrant, he turned himself in to a Calgary police station. A Toronto police spokesperson said the two-year delay between the incident and the criminal charge was due to police having to “liaise” with the prosecution to approve the charge.

When interviewed after his arrest, Whatcott described himself as a Christian activist who had formerly engaged in same-sex sexual activity. “I gave out medical information. I made theological arguments that I don’t think homosexuality is a good idea ... I don’t believe I committed a criminal offence.” After an initial hearing, his trial was delayed due to Covid. It finally took place in October 2021 and lasted five days.

Days one, two, and three covered Whatcott’s arrest, interrogation, and testimony from medical experts regarding statements on the flyer. The medical testimony is relevant because the hate crime law states that a person will not be convicted “if he establishes that the statements communicated were true.” The case is worth watching for this reason and for the free speech aspect, but I want to focus on the testimony of days four and five, when Dr. Douglas Farrow, a professor of Theology and Ethics at McGill University in Montreal, testified about the religious aspects of the flyer. I think it offers us an excellent example of Christian apologetics and witness. (Dr. Farrow has also written for Touchstone, by the way, Salvo’s “parent” publication.)

Farrow was called in to speak to the question: Are the religious elements in the flyer consistent with Judeo-Christian tradition? The reason for this line of inquiry is that the statute also says no person will be convicted “if in good faith, the person expressed or attempted to establish by an argument an opinion on a religious subject or an opinion based on a belief in a religious text.” So, the relevant questions here are, (1) Did the information on the flyer accurately represent Christian beliefs? and (2) Did Whatcott present the information in good faith?

MassResistance commented in some detail about this line of questioning, and it’s worth reading in full, but here are some highlights:

  • The flyer included a line that said, “… it is our duty to warn you that those who choose to rebel against the God who created them do so to their eternal peril.” Farrow was asked if the statement represents a significant part of Christian tradition. He answered, yes; combined with the invitation to come to Christ, which was also included in the flyer, it does.
  • Asked about the flyer as a whole, Farrow said it “seemed fairly remarkable in its internal consistency.” The warning and invitation together constitute a message of inclusion in the good, not exclusion. He commended the flyer in that “all of the religious elements [were] present in such a short document,” including (1) created order (natural law); (2) warning about deviation from that; and (3) the invitation to be a follower of Jesus and experience restoration. He added that Whatcott’s sign-off, “In Christ’s service,” is typical for one seeking to fulfill the mission of the Church. He praised the flyer for its “religious cohesion.”
  • On cross-examination, question after question asked whether Whatcott’s material wasn’t unChristian – more akin to hatred than Christian love. Farrow responded to each accusation by carefully setting it in the context of the whole of Scripture and historical Christian tradition. He noted, for example, that in addressing both medical and spiritual matters, Whatcott’s flyer was consistent with the Christian commandment to love one’s neighbor in his whole person, body and soul. Rather than being hateful, Farrow explained, Whatcott clearly believes that no one is excluded from the salvation story – what God has done, he has done for all people, including homosexuals.

Those are just a few highlights, but what stands out to me is that, thanks to the courage of Bill Whatcott and the wisdom and skill of his legal team, the trial became a kind of “seminar” on the gospel. Jesus told his twelve apostles, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of men, for they will deliver you over to courts … and you will be dragged before governors and kings for my sake, to bear witness before them.”

Two thousand years have passed, and it’s still happening today. Here are three ways Bill Whatcott has set an example for those who would bear witness for Christ:

  • He presented the whole gospel message, succinctly and in a manner tailored to his intended audience. Not only was the flyer well thought out, but he also got creative in his approach. (That’s not the point of this post, but if you’re curious, you can see how here.)
  • He counted the cost. When offered a three-year house arrest plea deal, he declined. He opted instead to face and litigate the charge through the legal system, knowing that a conviction could land him in prison for up to two years.
  • He summoned a robust defense of the biblical beliefs lying at the center of the case. There was no mere Scripture-citing, but rather a full treatment of the biblical point of view, in keeping with the gravity of the matters at hand.

That last point may have as much to do with his legal team as with him, but regardless of whose genius lay behind it, while Whatcott clearly stands to suffer loss, the trial has become less about him than it is about the gospel.

It was a judge-only trial (no jury), and a decision is expected on December 10th. How judge Robert F. Goldstein will decide is anybody’s guess, but one thing is sure. Goldstein himself is also now under trial.

has a BS in Computer Science and worked as a software engineer with IBM until she hopped off the career track to be a full-time mom. She lives in Indianapolis, IN, where she works as Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.

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