Youth for Allah?

O Canada. Thanks to the Winter Games, I know more about the maple leaf country than I ever did before. Who knew, for instance, that Winnipeg is just one state and a border west of my house? On occasion, it's fun to look at Canadian coverage of issues that pop up from time to time in the U.S. For instance, take a look at this Vancouver Sun article about how a Winnipeg politician said no federal money should go to a Christian group called Youth For Christ.

A debate over the separation of church and state got cranked up a notch this week as Canada's public safety minister suggested a Winnipeg MP would rather have kids join gangs than participate in programs run by a religious group.

Public Safety Minister Vic Toews scolded NDP MP Pat Martin, who a day earlier said no taxpayer money should be given to a Christian group that's trying to build a youth centre in downtown Winnipeg, calling the proposal "taxpayer-funded proselytization."

Ottawa will contribute $3.2 million if city council votes to contribute $3.4-million toward a large youth center. Objections anyone?

"I have no objection to faith-based organizations providing services. Sally Ann (the Salvation Army) and others have been doing a great job for years. But these people are evangelical fundamentalists," Martin said of Youth For Christ. "Offering much-needed sports opportunities is just their way of luring in young prospects."

He went on to quip: "Would the federal government be so willing to give them $3 million if they were called Youth for Allah?"

Ring any bells anyone? How about the faith-based initiatives and the much-discussed hiring practices of organizations that seek federal funds. The part that frustrates me about this article is that it never clarifies what the heck Youth For Christ does or where evangelism fits into its ministry. A few sentences describing what the organization does and how it's different from a group like the Salvation Army seems helpful to understanding the full picture. For example, do the employees sign a statement of faith? Martin says he has no objection to groups like the Salvation Army that provide a service, but wouldn't Youth For Christ theoretically provide a service of some kind? More information about the program seems pretty relevant.

The story suggests that other politicians criticized Martin for calling Youth For Christ a fundamentalist organization, so perhaps an explanation of the difference between fundamentalist and evangelical is in order.

I'd also like to know what Canadian laws apply in these kinds of situations. The Globe & Mail takes a stab.

The Canadian Revenue Agency recognizes "advancement of religion" as a legitimate condition for charitable status, but the direct funding of religious organizations is far murkier territory.

"A religious institution receiving public funds to provide services is a grey area and it's troubling," said Christopher Leo, a politics professor at the University of Winnipeg.

That's still pretty vague. Do we have Canadian readers out there who could weigh in on how national laws might apply in this type of situation?

The mayor told the Globe & Mail reporter that the city has worked with Youth For Christ for a while, but the story doesn't provide many more details.

When asked about the group's overtly evangelical tone, the mayor was more subdued. "I heard the executive director. He said [evangelism] is not what they do. I'm going to take him at his word."

While Youth For Christ has played down its religious component in recent public statements, its own website claims "effective, culturally relevant evangelism of teens" as one of its core values.

Did any of these reporters attempt to contact someone at Youth For Christ? At least the Winnipeg Free Press talks to a few students. Whether you're writing about a Canadian group or an American group, a few details can go a long way in understanding these church-state disputes.

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