End of Delta Hospice Society court battle ‘worrisome’ for private societies, say observers

(Photo courtesy of Delta Hospice)

By Agnieszka Ruck, The B.C. Catholic

[Vancouver – Canadian Catholic News] – Delta Hospice Society has lost its final legal opportunity to prevent a takeover of its board by euthanasia advocates, and observers say the the implications for private societies are worrisome.

On April 8, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an appeal by the society in its efforts to become a society that operated on Christian principles and supported life until “natural death,” thus making it exempt from the mandate to allow assisted suicide on their premises.

After refusing to meet a Feb. 3 deadline from the Fraser Health Authority and Health Minister Adrian Dix to start allowing legal assisted suicides, Fraser Health took control of the building.

Father Deacon Andrew Bennett, director of the Cardus Religious Freedom Institute, says the Supreme Court’s April 8 dismissal of the Delta Hospice Society’s appeal “absolutely” could have implications for other organizations.

“Within our health-care system there has to be room for conscience and there has to be room for alternative forms of end-of-life care. I think that’s commensurate with living in a democracy. It’s also commensurate with living in a country that respects freedom of religion and freedom of conscience and, by extension, freedom of association,” he told The B.C. Catholic.

“If a group of private individuals of a particular religious tradition, or not, want to come together to establish a privately funded hospice to provide end-of-life care, that should be permitted as long as they are adhering to the right regulations for that type of care and they are transparent and following appropriate charity regulations.”

The Delta Hospice Society has come publicly under fire for refusing to provide euthanasia at the 10-bed hospice it built 10 years ago, before assisted suicide was legalized in 2016. The Fraser Health Authority gave the society a February 2020 deadline to permit assisted suicide on site, but the society refused, saying the practice is not part of hospice care and trying various means to escape the mandate including considering becoming a faith-based organization.

Before the controversy, society membership was around 150. It shot up to 1,500 in late 2019 and is now approaching 9,000. As membership requests suddenly increased, including from people board president Angelina Ireland believes are linked to a pro-assisted suicide lobby group, the board tried to limit who was in and who was out.

“It appears a strategic campaign to infiltrate the society was planned,” Ireland said.

In B.C. Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals last year, the hospice was told it must allow anyone who applies for membership and pays a nominal fee to become a member, and that to pick and choose members based on other criteria would be in “bad faith” and against its own bylaws.

They appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, and the country’s top court dismissed the case.

“Every private society in Canada must now fear that their constitutional rights of freedom of conscience and freedom of association are at risk,” Ireland said.

“By the Supreme Court of Canada deciding to dismiss our case, we have been told in essence that the private is now public and a governing body of an organization is vulnerable to any agenda, special interest group, or social media movement. Essentially, it is powerless to define its purposes and protect its assets and its membership.”

Supporters of assisted suicide in the hospice, who have formed a group called Take Back Delta Hospice, are pleased with the court’s ruling.

“What an ordeal it has been to have to fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada so that local residents who wish to become members of the society are treated fairly,” spokesperson Chris Pettypiece told media.

The Supreme Court did not provide a reason for dismissing the appeal, as is customary.

“The effects of the decisions in the lower courts seem to me very worrisome,” said Peter Stockland, editor-in-chief of Convivium, a publication exploring topics of religion and conscience rights.

“From the documents I’ve read, it appears to mean any private society is vulnerable not only to having its membership taken over by those willing to pay a few bucks to join, but those who join can seek ends that are antithetical to the original mission,” he told The B.C. Catholic.

He suggested, by way of analogy, that a private organization raising funds for cancer research should not be vulnerable to being swamped by members seeking to promote health benefits of smoking.

“Yet that’s what seems to have happened here. A group committed to MAiD decided to ‘take back’ a hospice society that, in its constitution, is committed to ensuring patients ‘live as fully and as comfortably as possible.’ On what planet can administering MAiD be consistent with ‘living fully and comfortably’? In other words, they ‘took back’ what they never had, and knew full well their intentions violated the beliefs and goals of the Delta Hospital Society.”

Stockland believes people disappointed with this outcome shouldn’t point fingers at the Supreme Court, but at the loophole that allowed this and the political action that could close it.

Currently religious organizations are exempt from having to providing assisted suicide. Bennett believes that same right should be extended to every private society, religious or not.

“You can have people who value palliative care and are opposed to euthanasia who do not come from a particular religious tradition to back up their position. They might come from a secular humanist position or another philosophical position,” he said.

“That is a question of freedom of conscience and that needs to be protected as much as people who come together of a religious tradition.”

Ireland said the society plans to continue fighting and is in communication with a lawyer, preparing evidence for another court battle in the near future.